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Different Faces of Manipur’s War on Drugs Through the Decades, Some in Brutal Earnest, Some Theatrically Banal

It was in end December 1990 that I got a call from someone in the proscribed People’s Liberation Army, PLA, of Manipur to be present at a given spot. I did not ask the reasons but simply followed the instructions and soon entered a semi-liberated zone of the PLA in a outskirt of Imphal. There I was received by a stout gentleman, fair in complexion who introduced himself as Ksh. German then Finance Secretary of the Revolutionary People’s Front, RPF, the apex political body of which the PLA stands as the armed wing and a member of the Standing Committee of the front. He then beckoned a tall lanky gentleman who was introduced as Raju, Officer-in-Command of the PLA’s Unit No.1 or the Manipur Sector where all their actions of ambushes and executions were carried out. German soon told me the reasons of the meeting. He said that they had earlier seized about 4 kilograms of No.4 grade heroin powder from a Burmese women carrier as she was trying to sneak into Manipur to market her ware.

They also said that while the bulk of it was destroyed in the border area, they had retained one kilogram of it which they were going to be burning and wanted me to act as an independent witness and report on the matter. There was only one problem. They were not in the normal camouflaged uniforms in which the PLA cadres are now seen on Facebook posts but were all attired in blue denim jeans. Then I requested German to display some weapons or else the picture might not be able to tell the story. Raju produced a 9MM Pistol already tucked inside his waist and another brought out a stengun wrapped in a Manipuri khudei and a grenade was also placed on the ground. Soon the No.4 grade heroin, then worth Rs. 1 crore in the international market, was set on fire on the ground and I got a whiff of the smell of acytic anhydride, not only a major component but a sine quo non without which base morphine cannot be converted into heroin. They had also announced that come first of January 1991 all the licensed foreign liquor shops, numbering some 50 plus of them, have been ordered to shut, which the Manipur Government officially obliged with effect from the 31st of March 1991. Then there was a spate of Sendokchabas or confessions that appeared in the local dailies as paid advertisements of individuals or groups confessing to their crimes or sins of having either imbibed the fiery “fire water” or having taken No.4 shots. Quite a few individuals were also shot on their legs as a warning. This continued till about the mid-1990s. Then the PLA guns fell silent.

The burning ritual soon got over and was followed by the questions and answers session. When asked the raison d’être behind their act, German answered that the deadly white powder was turning Manipur into a land of the “Living Dead” where scores of youths addicted to it were roaming the streets like zombies. He also mentioned about the scourge of HIV/AIDS which was at that moment confined to Intravenous Drug Users, IDUs, mentioning that AIDS had the danger of wiping out the entire population of Manipur like a plague and the danger of not only the physical damage but also the psychological damage it will have on the entire population of the State. Those were the days before the Anti-Retroviral Therapy, ART, medicine were available making AIDS a manageable disease. The story was carried in three publications The Statesman, The Assam Tribune and the Northeast Sun. Later TIME Magazine, the international news magazine published from the USA carried the picture with my credits.

VIP involvement

The honour of being the first VIP/Politician does not go to Lhukhoshei Zou for being involved in the heroin or drugs trade or for that matter the Honourable Okram Henry, MLA, currently involved in the airports drugs smuggling case being taken up by the CBI. That singular honour belongs to the late Ngurdinglien former Deputy Speaker and Cabinet Minister of Manipur. Following the crackdown of the American Drug Enforcement Agency, DEA, the Bangkok route as an outlet of the products of the Golden Triangle got squeezed and Khun Sha the then chairman of the Shan State Army who produced 25 per cent of the total heroin production in the world was sighted in Tamu. It is believed then it was Khun Sha who had recruited Ngurdinglien as a drug courier using Manipur as an alternative route to Bangkok for its European and American market. The first suspicion arose when Ngurdinglien was found missing from a Commonwealth Conference in London. He had visited London alright but had skipped the official programme. It is believed that he had absconded to meet his Western drug kingpins. He was also once nearly caught red handed at Calcutta Airport but Inspector Robin Chakravarty of the Calcutta Police’s Special Branch tried to nab him a minute too early which gave him time to deny that the briefcase containing heroin was his. Anyway Prasun Sonwalkar, now the London Correspondent of the Hindustan Times, then called him a “drug peddler” in one of his dispatches for The Times of India for which he was reporting then. Ngurdinglien was later hacked to death by cadres of the HNVC as he emerged from a church in Churachandpur one Sunday morning. But his legacy lived on and others donning Khadi with VIP status were said to have fallen into his shoes. Then there was the late Md. Hellaluddin former Minister of Manipur whose son was amongst five who were hacked to death in Lilong. The UNLF later claimed responsibility for the “Execution” stating that it was because of their involvement in the drugs trade. And the variety of drugs had also increased from SP, N-10, WY Tablets to Brown Sugar while others continued with the traditional ganja trade buying votes with the money garnered and become Hon’ble elected persons.

Then came N. Biren Singh the Honourable Chief Minister of Manipur who had made yet another declaration of the State Government’s “War on Drugs”. He elaborated on how his government had seized about Rs.2000 crores of drugs, destroyed poppy fields and established a Fast Track Court to deal with cases established under the Narcotics Drugs and Psychotropic Substances (NDPS). He also had taken pride in announcing that his government had slapped the National Security Act against a drugs dealer who was earlier set on bail by a judge in Thoubal District. Then clouds began appearing following the arrest of Lhukhosei Zou, Chairman of the Autonomous District Council, ADC, and a member of the Bharatiya Janata Party, BJP, with more than 4kgs of No.4 heroin and a huge quantity of WY tablets, cash and guns. The Drugs were worth Rs. 27 crores apparently. He was soon sent to judicial custody (jail) but was soon shifted to JNIMS as he became a medical case due to stones in his gall bladder.

In CM Biren’s war on drugs he seemed to have benefited a lot when he had a dynamic no-nonsense commander in the field in the form of Brinda Thounajam, MPS. Her entry into the Manipur Police Service was via the Manipur High Court when the then Ibobi Singh led Congress Government held that she being the daughter-in-law of R. K. Meghen, the supremo of the UNLF, her entry into the Manipur Police Service will compromise the counter-insurgency measures of the government. Before the High Court passed their verdict, she was inducted as an Assistant Commandant with the Women’s IRB Battalion. After seeing service for some time she threw in her resignation letter. It was simply because she found out that her commandant was drawing money in her name for petrol expenses. Her formal complaints to the top brass of the Manipur Police drew no response and so also was her complaint to the O.C. Imphal Police station. Then she rejoined her service following heavy pressure from the Government of India through the Intelligence Bureau and she joined service as DSP of the Narcotics and Border Affairs wing of the Police. Then the nightmare of the drug dealers in Manipur began. Being Meghen’s daughter-in-law there was no chance of them threatening her and being the wife of a successful businessman the scope of trying to buy her into an inactive cop was also very minimal. The Brinda juggernaut soon swept across Manipur and her drive included destroying poppy fields to busting clandestine heroin production factories to nabbing her own colleagues in uniform for indulging in the trade along the “Heroin Highway”. The biggest catch was however Lhokhosei Zou, a man who was chairman of the Autonomous District Council of Chandel and that Zou being a member of the ruling BJP was a further embarrassment to all the concerned parties in the Governance of Manipur.

The present controversy arose when Zou applied for bail on health grounds. The man was absconding for over year having jumped bail. According to his own statement he was abducted by a Myanmar based armed Kuki outfit and kept in their custody for the period of his absence. None in the State bothered to ask him for details nor did he lodge a complaint with the police to that effect and it did not occur to Chief Minister Biren Singh to slap the National Security Act on Zou as he did earlier in the Thoubal case. When it appeared that he was going to be granted bail, Brinda threw an outburst and vented her full fury on Facebook against a system that had failed according to her. The Judicial Officer’s Association took exception and the matter soon landed up in the Hon’ble High Court where she was made to appear. Since the matter is before the High Court one cannot make any comments on the merits and demerits of the case as it would be sub-judice.

Judicial activism

However in Manipur which has often been described as a failed State the role of the Judiciary appears to be the last ray of hope in the War on Drugs. With a population of over 60,000 drug addicts in the state the problem cannot be said to be an imaginary one. Also as in any democratic state which has four pillars that of the Legislative, Executive, Judiciary with the Press as the fourth one. The role of the Legislative as has been proven by the recent spree of horse trading witnessed in the State. The Executive has more or less been a suspect in the eyes of the people for very long now. As far as the Press is concerned, I am afraid that the term Presstitudes can be applicable to a section of my fellow scribes. That leaves only the Judiciary as the only means left to rein in the drug warlords and by that account the flow of drugs in the market which is steadily eating into the social fabric of the society turning our youths into Zombies or living deaths.

I recollect how in 1999, we in the State Human Rights Commission with it’s limited powers curbed the menace of persons being killed by the army after taking them into their custody or mysterious disappearance deaths. The story began with Loken and Lokendra from Khongmang in the early 1980s to that of Bijoy in the early 1990s to that of Sanamacha in the late 1990s.The last recorded was in 1991 when Mina Khatun from Kairang Muslim Village approached the Commission  stating that her husband Tayeb Ali arrested by armymen in mufti had waylaid him and taken him side the Kangla Fort where the 17th Assam Rifles was located then. We asked the Police do a full police investigation into the disappearance besides asking the army as to whether he was picked up by them or not. Tayeb Ali’s body has not been till death but the National Human Rights Commission to whom we had referred the case to.The NHRC for the first time since it’s inception had interpreted section 19 of the Protection of Human Rights Act 1994 to the fullest extent possible and had held that the “onus to prove that Tayeb Ali was not in their custody lay with the Army itself”. The NHRC awarded a sum of Rs.3 lakhs as interim relief to Meena Khatun. The matter went up to the Gauhati High Court who ordered a CBI probe and the investigations revealed that Tayeb Ali was shot at Motbung a place beyond the operational jurisdiction of the 17 Assam Rifles. But that was the last time the Army had killed anyone in Manipur clandestinely.

Likewise it is hoped that the Manipur High Court the Manipur High Court will also take a pro-active role in the model  of Judicial activism as envisaged by late Justice P. Bhagwati who was the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of India in the early 1990s.It is hoped that the Hon’ble High Court of Manipur will look beyond Brinda and have a look at  Manipur’s war on Drugs with a view  to reigning in the Drug Lords  and cut off the supply chain.

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