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Chronicle of a curious crime: Colonel 'stole' 52 gold bars from smugglers

Adam Halliday | Updated on: 6 May 2016, 21:49 IST

The case

  • Lalnunfela, an Aizawl resident and \'transporter\' of smuggled goods, filed an FIR on 21 April
  • He alleged that on 14 December, armed men had stopped his car and \'stolen\' 52 gold bars, worth Rs 14.5 crore

The arrests

  • Colonel Jasjit Singh, Commandant of the 39th Batallion of Assam Rifles, has been arrested for \'stealing\' the gold
  • Former Mizo student leader and alleged gold smuggler Lalmuanawma Mathipi has also been arrested in connection with the case

More in the story

  • How the incident on 14 December transpired
  • The story behind the crime - warring smugglers, and how the paramilitary allegedly got involved

Even Alistair MacLean would have had a hard time cooking up a plot this thick and full of intrigue, featuring warring international smugglers, a paramilitary colonel who 'stole' 52 of their gold bars, worth Rs 14.5 crore, and a 'transporter' who squealed to the cops about it.

On 21 April, C Lalnunfela, an Aizawl resident and 'transporter' of smuggled goods, filed the unusual FIR in the Kulikawn Police Station. He said he was returning from Zokhawthar village (on the Indo-Myanmar border in Champhai District) in his private car with two companions on 14 December when, at around 10:45 pm, some men with guns stopped them near an intersection. There were six armed men on the road, while others were seated in vehicles. Lalnunfela said the men told him they were on a 'joint duty'.

On the basis of the FIR, a case of dacoity, criminal conspiracy and intimidation was drawn up, and a Special Investigation Team was formed within hours of the complaint being received at the police station.

Arya Sharma/Catch News

The SIT has since arrested the Commandant of the 39th Battalion of the Assam Rifles paramiltary force, Colonel Jasjit Singh, and eight of his men.

Two prominent men - a non-local government supplier known to have a wide range of connections among Aizawl's elite, and a well-known former student leader who has dabbled in politics - have also been arrested, along with two others who have been in the latter's employ for a long time.

A counter-FIR has also been filed by the two prominent civilians, who say they have been arrested because of a 'false' FIR filed by a confessed smuggler who, along with his accomplices, is in the employ of another smuggler - indignantly stating that all of them continue to remain at large. (They have since secured interim bail from a lower court).

How the events unfolded

According to Lalnunfela's FIR, the armed men checked his Mahindra TUV-300, and found nothing. They then called someone over the telephone, and Lalnunfela was taken away from the vehicle and stood guard over with a gun.

Soon, someone arrived, went to the vehicle, reached into the TUV's gearbox and took out 52 gold bars. The FIR states the gold is worth Rs 14.5 crore at the market rate.

Once the armed men had taken the gold, they told Lalnunfela they would go to the 'office' and talk things out. When he asked to see their identity cards, one of the Mizo men took out his pistol, stuffed the barrel in Lalnunfela's mouth and told him to shut up.

They then bundled Lalnunfela and his two companions, one of them a girl, into a waiting Tata Sumo. They had only travelled a short distance when the vehicle stopped, and the men told them to get off. The men left, but not before threatening the trio that their lives would be in danger if they went to the police.

In the FIR, submitted more than four months later, Lalnunfela admitted he was too scared to immediately approach the police, mainly because he had been threatened by the armed men that his life would be in danger if he did.

He stated he was convinced that those who stopped them and took away the gold were a group comprising of personnel of the 39th Assam Rifles and some civilians, but that they could not figure out where the gold was being kept.

Arrests galore

The top brass of the state police met the same afternoon the FIR was submitted; a six-member Special Investigation Team headed by the Additional Superintendent of Police of the state's Crime Branch was constituted, with members drawn from various wings.

The SIT acted quickly. On 22 April, it arrested a well-known government supplier named Bulaki Chand Baid.

The next day, it arrested Lalmuanawma Mathipi, a former general secretary of the influential Mizo Zirlai Pawl (Mizo Students' Association), a former special invitee of the ruling Congress's executive committee and a close relative, through marriage, of a retired bureaucrat.

The following week, the SIT also began interrogating personnel of the Assam Rifles' 39th Battalion. Meanwhile, personnel from Military Intelligence also arrived from Dimapur, Nagaland.

Trail leads back to Assam rifles

One of the reasons the investigation proceeded so quickly was because the police had been discreetly inquiring into the case for more than a month, after what appeared to be a routine seizure operation at first.

Sometime earlier this year, when winter had not quite passed, the police caught some men with two gold bars, as they were hawking them in Aizawl.

It was considered a routine crackdown on smuggling activities in the border state; anything from medicines (legal and narcotic), guns, fertilizers, explosives, chemicals and animal parts cross the Indo-Myanmar border in both directions in the hands of smugglers, most of them are small-time players.

Law enforcement agencies call them 'mules' or 'transporters', who are part of larger players' 'downlines'. They, in turn, are part of the 'downline' of even larger players.

But the catch of gold bars was by no means routine or ordinary.

To begin with, there had been little detection of gold smuggling through or into Mizoram, although gems have been routinely seized and cases drawn up. Gold does get smuggled, but mostly in ready-made jewellery form, which is sometimes difficult to pin down as part of smuggling activities.

Police, in fact, usually hand over seizures of contraband other than narcotics or arms and ammunition to agencies such as Customs, chiefly because they do not fall under the purview of either the Indian Penal Code or the Narcotic Drugs & Psychotropic Substances Act.

The other reason for the seizure not being routine was that the gold bars turned out to be fake. The men and the gold were handed over to Customs, but the police were told it was not gold at all, but some other metal, most likely brass.

Smugglers and police say consignments contain small amounts of such fake bars, both to throw enforcement personnel off the scent or as a bribe.

By this time, police had already gained some insight from interrogating the men who were hawking the bars. What they heard would lead them to something extraordinary - the men were related, through marriage, to a jawan in the Assam Rifles. The gold, they said, was his.

Smugglers fall out

According to information pieced together from interviews, the haul had its genesis in a fallout between two camps in a smuggling syndicate that, though no more than a year old, is surprisingly large in scale.

The main accused in the SIT case, Lalmuanawma Mathipi, is also a player in the gold-smuggling operations headed by a woman called Lalhmingthangi who, investigators say, had for sometime been involved in more legitimate businesses such as the supply of artificial flowers to the local market, as well as in facilitating money transfers.

Her role diversified, they say, when she got in touch with a rich Myanmarese national, an ethnic Mizo who has been on the radar of intelligence agencies for years.

The gold-smuggling route shifted to Mizoram from Manipur only in February 2015, but has been lucrative not just for those higher up in the hierarchy but also for the 'mules' and 'transporters'.

But then, Mathipi and Lalhmingthangi fell out, for unknown reasons, and the former was slowly sidelined from operations.

It was this growing distance that apparently sowed the seeds of a sensational set-up.

At the beginning of December, a senior police officer was handed information that some vehicles were transporting smuggled goods. The communication was specific in that it contained vehicle registration numbers. The police took note but no search or seizure immediately followed.

It is unclear whether Lalnunfela's vehicle number was on this list. But before the incident involving him, one car was stopped on 13 December by armed men in north Aizawl, who took away some items from the car, leading to an FIR. One of the men arrested in connection with that is Zobiakvela, a long-time aide of Mathipi.

Another telling point is that Mathipi and Lalnunfela were, at one time, active members of the MZP - the former a leader, the latter a loyal member and activist.

It is important to note here that the first official evidence of Mathipi's close relations with Lalhmingthangi is the counter-FIR filed by Mathipi and Baid three days after their arrests. They specifically asked that "Pi Lalhmingthangi, Lalnunfela, Lalthangkima @ TKa and Nupuii (Pi Lalhmingthangi's sister's daughter) be arrested immediately and action taken on them as per the law".

Baid, who appears to be a bit of an outsider in the whole scene, has also been apparently well-known to both Mathipi and Lalhmingthangi, as well as, by his own testimony, Lalnunfela. "All of them are closely acquainted with each other, and often visit each others' homes," an investigator said bluntly.

It appears that it is in this falling-out between hitherto closely-connected persons that the Assam Rifles colonel's alleged complicity has been found out.

Courtroom drama

On Thursday, 5 May, the atmosphere in the courtroom was charged, and the arguments lengthy.

Senior Advocate C Lalramzauva spoke first, arguing that Section 45 of the Code of Criminal Procedure prohibits police from arresting personnel of the Armed Forces while they are on duty, and therefore his client - Colonel Jasjit Singh - should be granted the anticipatory bail he had pleaded for.

He said Colonel Singh had been given secret information, and had directed his men to detail a special patrol, under a Junior Commissioned Officer, to be ready to move whenever they were informed by one Rifleman Pachhunga (one of the eight paramilitary personnel since arrested by the SIT).

Arya Sharma/Catch News

Two days earlier, this 'secret information' was revealed when a man named CS Thanga appeared out of the blue and filed an anticipatory bail plea at the Aizawl District Court, citing the same case.

Colonel Singh's lawyer said his client had to attend a conference at the Assam Rifles headquarters in Silchar at the time of the alleged looting of the smuggler's vehicle, and that he came home only on 15 December.

In spite of this, the lawyer argued, Colonel Singh had been implicated in the case, and that the SIT had obtained a warrant of arrest against his client because these troops had told the police they submitted the gold they stole - 52 bars worth an estimated Rs 14.5 crore - to him.

He promised that even if his client was allowed bail, he would cooperate in the investigation.

At this point, the Additional Public Prosecutor representing the SIT narrated a different story. H Lalmuankima said Colonel Singh had already been suspended by Brigadier TC Malhotra of the Assam Rifles, Sector 23, and, in any case, Section 45 of the CrPC does not apply to any armed forces personnel while he is off duty. He argued that as Commandant, Colonel Singh would be able exercise his influence on his troops and hamper investigations.

Besides, he said, Colonel Singh hails from an influential family, and if he is allowed bail, he might fly to his home state of Punjab, and from there, escape to a foreign country.

Colonel's actions

It has been learned subsequently that the SIT had summoned Colonel Singh for questioning on Wednesday evening, but he had said he had a doctor's appointment (by this time, the SIT had already obtained an arrest warrant).

The SIT obliged, and asked him to appear before it at 10 am on Thursday.

Singh, however, appeared to have no intention of heading towards the police station. He soon appeared at the district court premises instead.

Sensing the mood, the police acted quickly. Meanwhile, Brigadier Malhotra issued an order suspending Singh, which proved critical in the prosecution's arguments in the anticipatory bail plea

During the bail hearing, the prosecutor summed up his arguments saying: "Army personnel are to protect the interest of the society and they are for the safety of the citizens."

In the end, District and Sessions Judge Lucy Lalrinthari said she was convinced by the prosecutor's contention that "if the petitioner is granted bail he could easily fly to a foreign country and I am also convinced by the submission... the army officers are for the welfare... and protection of the society and I feel that it is unbecoming of an army officer to be allegedly involved in such type of allegations."

With this, the judge rejected the anticipatory bail application.

Friends of the hill people

Jasjit Singh waited for more than an hour after the hearing had concluded, eager to first see the written order. When he eventually left the court room, he was immediately apprehended and placed under arrest by more than 20 policemen, who had literally laid siege to the courtroom for fear the Colonel may escape: there were six police officers in all (including probationers) manning the premises, with the entire contingent being led by two Additional SPs.

Until now, the SIT has more or less arrested all the players alleged to have been involved in the dacoity case, the last being Singh.

After being arrested, Singh was taken in a police vehicle that, perhaps ironically, passed by the 39th battalion's headquarters in the heart of Aizawl. A wall at the headquarters bore the paramilitary's long-standing motto: 'Friends of the Hill People'.

First published: 6 May 2016, 21:49 IST