When 39th Assam Rifles Commandant Colonel Jasjit Singh was arrested on May 5 by the Mizoram Police, he became the 13th suspect to be arrested in a “dacoity” case, along with eight members of his own troops, a smuggler, a government supplier to various departments, a former student union leader and a politician.
Singh and the other Assam Rifles men are now in police custody.
The case has its origins, according to police and others involved, in what happened on the night of December 14, 2015.
Just before 11 that night, the car of a transporter was stopped by several armed men on the southern outskirts of Aizawl. Some of these men carried AK-47 rifles, others pistols, and some were in camouflage fatigues.
For four months, the transporter, C Lalnunfela, who claims to have been threatened, including with a pistol thrust in his mouth, kept quiet. Then, on April 21, he filed an FIR saying that after the men had searched his vehicle and found nothing, they had taken him aside and stood guard over him with a gun, and called someone on the phone. The latter soon arrived, reached into the vehicle’s gearbox, and extracted 52 smuggled gold bars.
In his FIR, Lalnunfela put the value of the gold bars at Rs 14.5 crore. Lalnunfela also said that he was convinced, after enquiries by his friends and he, that the men who stopped him that night included personnel of the 39th Assam Rifles, which is based on a campus in the heart of Aizawl.
This fit in with what the Mizoram Police had itself found over a discreet two-month-long probe, that began soon after its men caught relatives of an Assam Rifles personnel hawking “gold bars” in the local market. According to a Customs officer, the bars later turned out to be made of brass (generally carried by smugglers to use as decoys or to pay as bribes along the smuggling route). However, it was enough to put police on trail of Assam Rifles men and a smuggling gang, that allegedly included Lalnunfela.
When Lalnunfela lodged the FIR, police acted swiftly, and within two weeks, a Special Investigation Team led by the Crime Branch’s additional superintendent of police had arrested almost all those suspected to be involved in the case.
The first to be held were well-known government-supplier Bulaki Chand Baid and former Mizoram Students’ Assoiation leader Lalmuanawma Mathipi. Three men in Mathipi’s employ were next to be held, of whom one was released for lack of evidence.
Police next began grilling personnel of the 39th battalion of the Assam Rifles. A team of Military Intelligence officials, led by a colonel, arrived from the 3 Corps base in Dimapur, Nagaland, to join the interrogation.
On May 4, after more than a week of questioning, eight Assam Rifles personnel — one naik subedar, three havildars and three sepoys — were placed under arrest. The same day, the SIT asked Colonel Jasjit Singh to appear before it for questioning. A judicial magistrate also issued an arrest warrant against Singh.
Sources said the Colonel backed out of questioning that day at the last minute, claiming a doctor’s appointment. Given time till the next day 10 am, he appeared before the Aizawl District and Sessions Court instead with a team of lawyers. Police in turn reached the court premises with at least six officers.
The same day, Brigadier T C Malhotra of the Sector 23 Assam Rifles (which governs all the three AR battalions posted in Mizoram) suspended Colonel Singh, citing the arrest warrant against him.
The suspension order, with “immediate effect”, noted that Colonel Singh was to be taken in police custody and said, “It is further directed that during the period that this order shall remain in force… The said officer… Colonel Jasjit Singh shall report to the Headquarters 23 Sector Assam Rifles and shall not leave the same Headquarters without obtaining permission.”
Singh’s lawyer C Lalramzauva argued before the court that on the said night of December 2015 his client was in Silchar, Assam, and only returned the next day. And that on the basis of some “secret information”, the Colonel had only deputed a team led by a junior commissioned officer to move whenever instructed to do so by Rifleman Pachhunga, one of the eight arrested Assam Rifles personnel.
Lalramzauva also argued that his client could not be arrested because he was an Armyman.
Additional Public Prosecutor H Lalmuankima countered this, saying that all the eight personnel in police custody had said they submitted the smuggled gold to Colonel Singh. Noting that Singh had already been suspended, he said law barred the arrest of Army personnel for only acts committed on duty.
Rejecting Singh’s bail plea, District and Sessions Judge Lucy Lalrinthari said, “Army officers are for the welfare… and … protection of society and … that it is unbecoming of an Army officer to be allegedly involved in such type of allegations”.
Police and Customs sources said Mizoram had emerged on the gold-smuggling route only over the past one year, with Manipur becoming either too “dangerous” or “costly”.
Transporters could earn between Rs 60,000 and Rs 1.5 lakh carrying gold from along the Indo-Myanmar border to Aizawl.