smuggling bust

Highway robbery: Assam Rifles and back-stabbing gold smugglers on Myanmar-Mizoram border

The sensational story behind how a senior army officer and eight of his men from 39 Assam Rifles came to conduct – and be caught for – a Rs 14.5 crore robbery.

“One of them stuffed the barrel of his pistol into my mouth and told me to shut up”

Colonel Jasjit Singh, commandant of the 39th battalion of the Assam Rifles in Aizawl, arrested on Thursday for his alleged involvement in the robbery of 52 gold bars valued at Rs 14.5 crore, had a perfect alibi.

He was at Silchar and not in Aizawl when the robbery was alleged to have taken place, he claimed in his defence.

In any case, the robbery on the night of December 14, 2015, would normally have gone unreported – because it was smuggled gold that was robbed.

The police alleged that Singh had ordered eight of his men – including a junior commissioned officer – armed with sophisticated weapons to waylay a consignment of smuggled gold bars.

Singh had been given specific information about the vehicle the smuggled gold was to be transported in, the police claimed – a sensational set-up by a disgruntled member of a gold-smuggling syndicate, who had, the investigators alleged, fallen out with the head of operations, a woman.

It took an unusual first information report filed by C Lalnunfela, an Aizawl resident on April 21 in the Kulikawn Police Station, located in the southern edge of Mizoram’s capital city, that finally led to various dots being connected in the investigation and eventually culminated in the arrests on Thursday.

Assam Rifles, the oldest para-military force in India, is led by officers from Indian Army and is deployed only in the North East. It is primarily tasked with counter-insurgency operations.

The highway robbery

In the FIR, Lalnunfela said he was in his private car with two companions on December 14, 2015, returning to Aizawl from Zokhawthar, a village on the Indo-Myanmar border in Champhai district.

At around 10.45 pm, just before they reached the southern outskirts of Aizawl, some men with guns stopped them near Zampuimanga Thlan, an intersection between the road to Aizawl and the city’s bypass.

Lalnunfela said the men told him they were on a “joint duty”.

They had with them three vehicles – a Sumo, a white Mahindra Scorpio and a Scooty Flyte. There were six men on the road, and others were also seated in the vehicles.

Three of those men thoroughly searched Lalnunfela’s Mahindra TUV-300, a newly bought vehicle, bearing the registration number MZ-01 L 8392. These men were attired in camouflage uniforms and carried AK-47 rifles. They were non-locals.

Three others were in civilian clothes and carried pistols. They were Mizos. One of the Mizos had a tattoo on his arm, another had a scar on his forehead. Lalnunfela overheard them calling each other as “Roy-sab”, “Nova”, “Ganesh” and “Seph”.

The men seemed to be looking for something – but found nothing.

They then called someone by telephone. Soon, someone arrived, went to the vehicle, reached into the TUV’s gearbox and took out 52 gold bars.

The FIR said the gold was worth Rs 14.5 crore at the market rate.

Clearly, the armed men were working on a specific tip-off.

Once they had taken the gold, the armed men 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 into Lalnunfela’s mouth and told him to shut up.

They then bundled Lalnunfela and his two companions, one of them a girl, into the waiting Sumo – the FIR said the vehicle appeared to be an ambulance. Lalnunfela noticed the dirty white curtains draped on the windows.

They had only travelled a short distance when the Sumo stopped and the men told them to get off. They were parked near the Ngaizel Petrol Pump, less than a kilometre south of the square at Kulikawn neighbourhood.

The men left, but not before threatening the trio their lives would be in danger if they went to the police.

Lalnunfela said 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 and some of his friends, apparently others involved in the lucrative smuggling business, began to discreetly inquire on their own, trying to find out about the men who robbed them of their gold.

Lalnunfela said he was convinced that it was a group comprising of personnel of the 39th Assam Rifles and some civilians.

But he and his friends could not find out where the gold was kept.

Rapid police action

It was the eventual filing of the FIR which set in motion a rapid sequence of events.

The top brass of the state police met the same afternoon the FIR was submitted and 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 April 22, they arrested a well-known government supplier named Bulaki Chand Baid, who lives in a rented home in the northern Laipuitlang locality. Baid is a long-time businessman who, sources say, has been a trader since he was a teenager – his knack for profitable deals making up for his lack of higher education. He speaks almost-fluent Mizo, and claims a wide array of acquaintances in the cream of Mizoram society, including senior police officers and lawyers in the employ of the government.

The other man to have been arrested by the SIT immediately included Lalmuanawma Mathipi, a former General Secretary of the influential Mizo Zirlai Pawl or Mizo Students’ Association, a former special invitee of the ruling Congress’ executive committee and a close relative, through marriage, of a retired bureaucrat.

The SIT also interrogated four personnel of the 39th Battalion of the Assam Rifles. Among them was a man with a tattoo on his arm and another with a prominent scar on his forehead.

Guns, drugs, gold

One of the reasons the investigation proceeded so quickly was, as it was later revealed, because the police had also been discreetly inquiring into the case for more than a month, much before the FIR had been filed.

That was because the police caught some men with two “gold bars” as they were hawking them in Aizawl.

But the “gold bars” turned out to be fake. The men and the “gold bars” were handed over to Customs, but the police were told it was not gold at all but some other metal, most likely brass.

It is well known among smuggling and police circles that contraband consignments of gold usually include a small number of such fake bars, both to throw enforcement personnel off the scent – or to be as a bribe.

But by this time, police had already gained some insight from interrogating the men who were hawking the bars. The men were related, through marriage, to a jawan in the Assam Rifles. The “gold bars”, they said, belonged to him.

The police suspected they were part of a much bigger haul.

But that was not the first time a whiff of the on-goings first came under the police’s nose.

At the beginning of December last year, a senior police officer was handed over 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.

The set up

Investigations and interviews revealed that the robbery on the night of December 14 was the result of 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 said to also be involved in the gold-smuggling operations headed by a woman called Lalhmingthangi, who investigators said, 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 who is himself an ethnic Mizo and who has been on the radar of intelligence agencies for years.

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

It is not clear till now why Mathipi and Lalhmingthangi fell out, but the former began to be slowly sidelined from the operations. It was this growing distance that apparently sowed the seeds of a sensational set-up.

The first official evidence of the close relations between Mathipi and Lalhmingthangi was provided by the counter-FIR filed by Mathipi and Baid after their arrests, which began by saying they had been arrested because of a dawt (lie) FIR.

The counter-FIR then specifically went on to charge that Lalnunfela and “his boss Lalhmingthangi w/o B Zokhuma, Bawngkawn, Lunglei Road and their accomplices have broken the law by smuggling gold bars as evident from the FIR.”

They alleged that an investigation into Lalhmingthangi's operations would reveal the truth, charging not only that the “confessed smugglers” had not been arrested, but even the vehicle they used to transport the gold remained at large and they were left free to move about as they wished.

But by then those Assam Rifles men who participated in the robbery had been apprehended, leading finally to their battalion Commandant, whom they reportedly named as the mastermind of the operation.

Mathipi is said to have passed on specific information, based on which Lalnunfela's vehicle was intercepted on December 14, 2015. The Assam Rifles men are said to have confessed during their interrogation that had earlier waited for the vehicle on the highway near Bung Bangla, on the eastern outskirts of Aizawl near Zemabawk on December 13 as well.

A new smuggling route

Sitting on the Indo-Myanmar border astride the Golden Triangle, Mizoram and its neighbouring states are no strangers to the trafficking and smuggling of drugs, guns, fake currency and a host of other contraband.

Gold is no more than a blip on the radar of law-enforcement agencies that continuously monitor Mizoram although consignments have been seized frequently in Manipur.

For years, the precious metal has been smuggled in miniature scale in the form of ready-made jewellery such as necklaces, earrings and rings that are simply worn and taken across the border by men and women that cross the unfenced border westward, where they are sold for what they are – jewellery.

Last year, things began to change dramatically when a smuggling cartel began to transport gold bars using Mizoram, the region’s most peaceful state, as a route.

Interviews with key players suggested the smuggling operations are extremely profitable even for those at the lower end of the chain, such as the transporters like Lalnunfela.

One consignment, depending on its size and value, can earn a transporter anywhere from Rs 60,000 to Rs 1.5 lakhs.

The vehicles chosen for these operations are also chosen carefully, and comparatively more expensive cars are preferred because they are less likely to be checked.

Interestingly, the gold bars smuggled through Mizoram tend to bear two kinds of markings; “Boss King” and an outline of a half-eaten apple. The “Boss King” bars are heavier and weigh a little over a kilogram, while the ones bearing outlines of apples are lighter and usually weigh less than a kilogram.

In the particular case at hand, 37 bars bearing apples and 15 of the “Boss King” bars were allegedly stolen.

We welcome your comments at
Sponsored Content BY 

Ten awesome TV shows to get over your post-GoT blues

With those withdrawal symptoms kicking in, all you need is a good rebound show.

Hangovers tend to have a debilitating effect on various human faculties, but a timely cure can ease that hollow feeling generally felt in the pit of the stomach. The Game of Thrones Season 7 finale has left us with that similar empty feeling, worsened by an official statement on the 16-month-long wait to witness The Great War. That indeed is a long time away from our friends Dany, Jon, Queen C and even sweet, sweet Podrick. While nothing can quite replace the frosty thrill of Game of Thrones, here’s a list of awesome shows, several having won multiple Emmy awards, that are sure to vanquish those nasty withdrawal symptoms:

1. Billions

There is no better setting for high stakes white collar crime than the Big Apple. And featuring a suited-up Paul Giamatti going head-to-head with the rich and ruthless Damien Lewis in New York, what’s not to like? Only two seasons young, this ShowTime original series promises a wolf-of-wall-street style showcase of power, corruption and untold riches. Billions is a great high-octane drama option if you want to keep the momentum going post GoT.

Watch Billions Now

2. Westworld

What do you get when the makers of the Dark Knight Trilogy and the studio behind Game of Thrones collaborate to remake a Michael Crichton classic? Westworld brings together two worlds: an imagined future and the old American West, with cowboys, gun slingers - the works. This sci-fi series manages to hold on to a dark secret by wrapping it with the excitement and adventure of the wild west. Once the plot is unwrapped, the secret reveals itself as a genius interpretation of human nature and what it means to be human. Regardless of what headspace you’re in, this Emmy-nominated series will absorb you in its expansive and futuristic world. If you don’t find all of the above compelling enough, you may want to watch Westworld simply because George RR Martin himself recommends it! Westworld will return for season 2 in the spring of 2018.

Watch Westworld Now

3. Big Little Lies

It’s a distinct possibility that your first impressions of this show, whether you form those from the trailer or opening sequence, will make you think this is just another sun-kissed and glossy Californian drama. Until, the dark theme of BLL descends like an eerie mist, that is. With the serious acting chops of Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman as leads, this murder mystery is one of a kind. Adapted from author Liane Moriarty’s book, this female-led show has received accolades for shattering the one-dimensional portrayal of women on TV. Despite the stellar star cast, this Emmy-nominated show wasn’t easy to make. You should watch Big Little Lies if only for Reese Witherspoon’s long struggle to get it off the ground.

Watch Big Little Lies Now

4. The Night of

The Night Of is one of the few crime dramas featuring South Asians without resorting to tired stereotypes. It’s the kind of show that will keep you in its grip with its mysterious plotline, have you rooting for its characters and leave you devastated and furious. While the narrative revolves around a murder and the mystery that surrounds it, its undertones raises questions on racial, class and courtroom politics. If you’re a fan of True Detective or Law & Order and are looking for something serious and thoughtful, look no further than this series of critical acclaim.

Watch The Night Of Now

5. American Horror Story

As the name suggests, AHS is a horror anthology for those who can stomach some gore and more. In its 6 seasons, the show has covered a wide range of horror settings like a murder house, freak shows, asylums etc. and the latest season is set to explore cults. Fans of Sarah Paulson and Jessica Lange are in for a treat, as are Lady Gaga’s fans. If you pride yourself on not being weak of the heart, give American Horror Story a try.

Watch American Horror Story Now

6. Empire

At its heart, Empire is a simple show about a family business. It just so happens that this family business is a bit different from the sort you are probably accustomed to, because this business entails running a record label, managing artistes and when push comes to shove, dealing with rivals in a permanent sort of manner. Empire treads some unique ground as a fairly violent show that also happens to be a musical. Lead actors Taraji P Henson and Terrence Howard certainly make it worth your while to visit this universe, but it’s the constantly evolving interpersonal relations and bevy of cameo appearances that’ll make you stay. If you’re a fan of hip hop, you’ll enjoy a peek into the world that makes it happen. Hey, even if you aren’t one, you might just grow fond of rap and hip hop.

Watch Empire Now

7. Modern Family

When everything else fails, it’s comforting to know that the family will always be there to lift your spirits and keep you chuckling. And by the family we mean the Dunphys, Pritchetts and Tuckers, obviously. Modern Family portrays the hues of familial bonds with an honesty that most family shows would gloss over. Eight seasons in, the show’s characters like Gloria and Phil Dunphy have taken on legendary proportions in their fans’ minds as they navigate their relationships with relentless bumbling humour. If you’re tired of irritating one-liners or shows that try too hard, a Modern Family marathon is in order. This multiple-Emmy-winning sitcom is worth revisiting, especially since the brand new season 9 premiers on 28th September 2017.

Watch Modern Family Now

8. The Deuce

Headlined by James Franco and Maggi Gyllenhaal, The Deuce is not just about the dazzle of the 1970s, with the hippest New York crowd dancing to disco in gloriously flamboyant outfits. What it IS about is the city’s nooks and crannies that contain its underbelly thriving on a drug epidemic. The series portrays the harsh reality of New York city in the 70s following the legalisation of the porn industry intertwined with the turbulence caused by mob violence. You’ll be hooked if you are a fan of The Wire and American Hustle, but keep in mind it’s grimmer and grittier. The Deuce offers a turbulent ride which will leave you wanting more.

Watch The Deuce Now

9. Dexter

In case you’re feeling vengeful, you can always get the spite out of your system vicariously by watching Dexter, our favourite serial killer. This vigilante killer doesn’t hide behind a mask or a costume, but sneaks around like a criminal, targeting the bad guys that have slipped through the justice system. From its premier in 2006 to its series finale in 2013, the Emmy-nominated Michael C Hall, as Dexter, has kept fans in awe of the scientific precision in which he conducts his kills. For those who haven’t seen the show, the opening credits give an accurate glimpse of how captivating the next 45 minutes will be. If it’s been a while since you watched in awe as the opening credits rolled, maybe you should revisit the world’s most loved psychopath for nostalgia’s sake.

Available starting October

10. Rome

If you’re still craving an epic drama with extensive settings and a grandiose plot and sub-plots, Rome, co-produced by HBO and BBC, is where your search stops. Rome is a historical drama that takes you through an overwhelming journey of Ancient Rome’s transition from a republic to an empire. And when it comes to tastes, this series provides the similar full-bodied flavour that you’ve grown to love about Game of Thrones. There’s a lot to take away for those who grew up quoting Julius Caesar, and for those looking for a realistic depiction of the legendary gladiators. If you’re a history buff, give this Emmy-winning show a try.

Watch Rome Now

For your next obsession, Hotstar Premium has you covered with its wide collection of the most watched shows in the world. Apart from the ones we’ve recommended, Indian viewers can now easily watch other universally loved shows such as Silicon Valley and Prison Break, and movies including all titles from the Marvel and Disney universe. So take control of your life again post the Game of Thrones gloom and sign up for the Hotstar Premium membership here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Hotstar and not by the Scroll editorial team.