“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.