As a war rages...

Yambem Laba *

Manipur Chief Minister N. Biren Singh’s much-flouted campaign on War on Drugs took a nosedive on 16 January (2023). That was the day when personnel of the Kakching District Police waylaid a Gypsy carrying five Commandos belonging to a unit of its own force stationed at Moreh on the Indo-Myanmar border. The incident took place at Kuraopokpi near Kakching and Pallel at about 7.30 am.

The Moreh team was headed by Havildar Kh Achouba Singh, originally belonging to the Manipur Police Training College but attached with the Kakching Police Commandos. With him were Rifleman Th Subhas Chothe, originally from the 7th Manipur Rifles, Constable Y Dineshwar Meitei, originally of the Imphal West District Police and Riflemen M Premamachandra and N Dorendrajit, both originally belonging to the 6th Battalion, Manipur Rifles.

When the Gypsy was asked to stop by a police party led by Additional SP, Kakching District, Binoy Chongtham, they made no attempt to escape. Perhaps they might have thought that having passed through Khudengtabi, where Assam Rifles searches every vehicle that passes through, including of Ministers’ convoys, this would not be a challenge as they hailed from the same district police force.

Additional SP Binoy must have got prior information. According to video footage, he was not rough with them but politely asked them to open the bags they were carrying in their Maruti Gypsy vehicle, which incidentally included an LPG Cylinder. The Additional SP Binoy politely told the Havildar to open the packages that they were carrying in cartons.

When they were opened, and the contents thrown on the tarmac of the Asian Highway designated to connect Singapore with Teheran, out came over one hundred soap cases containing No. 4 Grade pure Heroin weighing 1.36 Kilograms and 80,000 WY tablets (yaba tablets, also called the madness drug).

The market value added up to a staggering Rs 3.35 crore. Such heroin is called No. 4 in Manipur as it is in the fourth stage of purification, which means it is 90 per cent pure. WY tablets have the ability to keep a person awake for three days and that is what the LET terrorists who raided Mumbai a few years back are believed to have imbibed.

Soon, the reactions from the Opposition parties and the general public started pouring out. The first to speak out was K Meghachandra Singh, President of the Manipur Pradesh Congress Party. He openly asked if the War on Drugs was a hoax to befool the public.

He said: “We support the war on drugs but don’t make it a failure; make it credible. Singh asked who would take responsibility for the drug haul.”

Reacting three days after the arrest and haul, the Director General of Police Manipur P Doungel, said that the war on drugs was not a hoax and cited statistics to press home his point. He said that during the last five years beginning from 1 January 2017 till 17 January this year, the Manipur Police department had registered 2,243 cases under the Narcotics Drugs and Psychothropic Substances Act. A total of 2,817 men and 595 women had been arrested.

During this period, around 15,662 acres of poppy fields had been destroyed, which included 777 acres this year alone. He said the fact that the commandos involved in the recent drugs haul were nabbed by Manipur police was a pointer to the seriousness with which his department had been carrying on this war.

Speaking from Delhi where he was present for the BJP National Executive Meeting, Chief Minister N Biren Singh said that the cops found guilty will face wrath of law. He was reacting to statements issued by the Congress and others. But CM Biren also knows very well that the Manipur Police Commando is a privileged class of policeman. They receive extra allowances and out-of-turn promotions and wield unbridled power.

I had, whilst I was in the State Human Rights Commission, received complaints from the Army when three Commando officers thrashed up an army NCO who belonged to the Corps of Military Police whilst he was on holiday at Phumlou Village in Imphal West District in 2000.

Earlier, drugs trafficking involving State and Central Security forces was confined to carrying Ganja or Marijuana which grows in plenty in Manipur. The first discovery was made in 1989 when a convoy of Manipur Rifles personnel enroute to collect ordinance had a stopover at Siliguri. One Havildar of the convoy had an altercation with a local at a roadside eatery.

He opened fire with his service weapon and the man was killed. When the West Bengal police stepped in, they discovered that the convoy was ferrying Ganja which was in high demand in Bihar and UP. The Manipur Legislative Assembly in 1990 had established a House Committee to inquire into the incident but nothing is known about its findings till date.

In 1994, a convoy belonging to the 62 Battalion of the CRPF stationed in Imphal was apprehended near Patna by Bihar Excise and it was revealed that the convoy was carrying large amounts of Ganja. The then Inspector General of the CRPF stationed at its Group Headquarters at Langjing in Imphal was arrested by Bihar Police and a few junior officers were blamed. But the final outcome is yet to come to light.

There are also politicians of various hues and colour involved in the drugs trade. It began in the mid-1980s when the American Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) began its crackdown on heroin movements via Bangkok.

This was when Khun Sha, the Chairman Leader and “Teacher” of the Shan State Army of Myanmar, who had then been producing 25 per cent of the world’s heroin output was sighted at Tamu, the Myanmarese border town located 5 kilometres from Moreh in Manipur. He was looking for an alternative route to the west via Manipur and is believed to have recruited a prominent personality as his principal courier.

Events such as this ensured that Manipur became the drugs capital of India for a while. Lured by the easy ways money can be churned out through the drugs market, numerous tribes, mostly belonging to the Kuki-Chin group, started cultivating poppy on a massive scale. They are suspected to be guarded by various Kuki militant outfits currently under a Suspension Of Operations (SoO) with the Government of India and Manipur.

The poppy is harvested, and the opium extracted. It is no longer exported to the Golden Triangle for conversion but finds its way to Lilong, in Thoubal District, about 14 kilometres from Imphal. There some enterprising drug entrepreneurs procure chemicals from Kolkata required for conversion of Opium to Base Morphine, to Morphine and then to codeine and heroin. These Lilong factories churn out a crude form of heroin locally called “thum-morok” meaning chilly-salt powder.

The only difference from the Golden Triangle variety is the cost. The triangle variety used to cost Rs. 2,000-3,000 per gram while the Lilong variety is available between Rs 300-500 per gram.

The base of the drug addicts has widened. Earlier it was only children of the elite who could afford the white powder, but now children of rickshaw pullers and mason workers are becoming drug addicts. More and more young people are getting addicted, so much so that there are nearly 100 Drug Rehabilitation centres in Manipur today.

In the meantime, the Government is going high-tech in its poppy destruction programmes. They have started using drones and hand pump sprays to spread herbicides on the poppy fields abandoning old practice of using scythes to cut down the plants. Then there are social sanctions being imposed on drug dealers; a husband and wife were banished by the community in Kangpokpi Town.

But the question remains as to how prosecutions will be conducted. The case of Lukhosei Zou comes to mind. The then BJP Chairman of the Autonomous District Council of Chandel was caught red-handed and 4.5 kg of No. 4 Heroin and over two lakh WY tablets were seized. But the NDPS Court that heard the case concluded the drugs consignment worth about Rs. 27 crore belonged to his driver.

The State refused to move the High Court over the verdict. So, the question arises: Will the Courts find that the heroin seized from the five commandos belonged to the lowly paid Havildar or the riflemen ?

* Yambem Laba wrote this article for The Sangai Express
(The writer is the Imphal-based Special Representative of The Statesman)
This article was webcasted on 29 January 2023.

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