When customs officials posted near the Myanmar border in eastern Mizoram seized 257 logs of red sandalwood weighing almost six quintals last October, they had no idea the consignment had actually been stolen from their own building less than 30 km away.
Once they did find out — in the last week of November — it kick-started a multi-agency probe that has resulted in the suspension of four customs officials, four men being arrested for the theft, and several unanswered questions for investigators.
It was in the first week of December that customs officials registered an FIR with police, complaining 257 logs of red sandalwood had gone missing from a consignment of 272 logs, worth Rs 1.24 crore, which they had seized earlier and kept at the Zokhawthar Land Customs Station, just a few metres from the Myanmar border in Mizoram’s Champhai district.
A team was sent from the Customs Commissionerate in Shillong while Mizoram Police too began a probe. And what they have unearthed so far has only partly solved the whodunit.
The police probe has established that four men — two of them from Champhai town, two from Zokhawthar — hired 34 porters and a truck with a driver, and broke open the lock of the customs station at half past midnight on October 4.
The men and the porters loaded the seized logs onto the truck, fixed the main lock back with transparent sellotape and drove off towards Tlangsam, a Mizoram village about 28 km north on the hilly border road.
As it turned out, they were caught there along with the stash by the customs officials, who had no clue what they had seized.
It was only on November 26 that customs officials began to suspect the consignment they had found three weeks earlier was actually part of what they had seized more than two months before that, and which they had kept in their building.
Yet it took another three days for customs to actually establish the consignment was not there anymore. An official directed to inspect the room where the seized stash had been kept was reportedly satisfied that the lock was intact.
Once it was eventually found that the lock had merely been resealed with sellotape, customs have been cleaning themselves up. At least three inspectors and a havildar have so far been suspended by the commissionerate in Shillong for alleged dereliction of duty. A vigilance inquiry has been instituted and, according to a senior official, at least one high-ranking official could be suspended in the coming few days by headquarters in New Delhi.
Police have in the meantime arrested four men for stealing the logs, but have so far been unable to make them confess who exactly they had connived with among those posted that night at the station. One of them arrested men has reportedly told police investigators that one among them had simply told the others just before the theft that those on duty at the station had been “taken care of”, but police have been unable to find out who that meant.
And neither senior customs nor police officials are sure how no one heard all the noise that must have come about while 39 men were loading 5.8 quintals wood on a truck.