Why Is the Manipur Chief Minister Angry With a State Super Cop?

All you need to know about Thonaujam Brinda, the contempt of court case against her and the drug cases she's been working on.

New Delhi:  A few weeks short of a year ago, on the occasion of Independence Day in 2019, Manipur chief minister N. Biren Singh honoured a team from the state police’s Narcotics and Affairs of Border (NAB) bureau for what was reported to be “the biggest ever drug bust” in the state’s history. For the first time, a clandestine drug lab was brought to light during a raid.

NAB Additional Superintendent of Police Thonaujam Brinda, a state police service officer of the 2012 batch, had led the operation along with fellow officials and the Thoubal district police.

A year before that, on the occasion of Independence Day 2018, Th. Brinda was awarded the state’s Police Medal for Gallantry in recognition of her continued effort against smuggling and sale of drugs in the border state – and was promoted as additional superintendent. She was also given the chief minister’s ‘Commendation Certificate’ in appreciation of her work.

That day in 2019, at his official bungalow, the chief minister also announced a financial award of Rs 10 lakh to the team for their exemplary work conducted in June that year, which had resulted in the seizure of drugs worth Rs 100 crore. The chief minister had told journalists that the operation was part of the ‘war against drugs’ taken up by the BJP-led coalition government.

The BJP, which had pocketed 21 seats for the first time in that state in the 2017 assembly polls, had made the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) naming Congress MLA and former chief minister Okram Ibobi Singh’s nephew O. Henry in a drug peddling case an election issue.

Much to public approval, the Biren government also set up a special court (Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances) to fast-track drug haul cases.

Cut to this week – July 14, 2020. The chief minister reportedly said he would take legal action against a woman police officer for accusing him of exerting pressure on her and the police to not file a chargesheet in a drug seizure case from 2018, and release from custody a drug lord touted to be Manipur’s biggest ever.

The officer is none other than the decorated Additional SP Th. Brinda.

What changed?

To seek an answer, one would have to refer to an affidavit filed by the firebrand officer at the Manipur high court on July 13 in a case of contempt of court charges against her. The charge was based on a Facebook post she uploaded against a judge in a drug seizure case involving the drug lord, Leitkhosei Zou. Leitkhosie, when nabbed, was a BJP member.

Before I go in to the details of both the cases, a short backgrounder on Th. Brinda would be helpful here.

The appointment of Brinda, even though she was selected for the Manipur Police Service in 2012, was kept on hold by the then Congress government. The ground was that she was the daughter-in-law of Raj Kumar Meghan, the former chairman of the armed group, the United National Liberation Front (UNLF).

A revered figure in Manipur, also referred to as Sanayaima (son of the soil), Meghan was by then (in 2010) arrested by the National Investigation Agency (NIA) on the charge of waging war against India and lodged at the Guwahati Central Jail facing trial. The fight against insurgent groups in Manipur by the state police and the armed forces included UNLF, considered the first separatist outfit in the state. Meghan is the great-grandson of Manipuri prince Tikendrajit Singh who led the army in the 1891 Anglo-Manipur War.

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The state government, however, did not give any official reason to Th. Brinda for the delay in her appointment. She soon filed a writ petition in the Manipur bench of the Gauhati high court. On the court’s intervention, the state government allowed her to join the state’s 9 IRB Mahila Battalion as an Assistant Commandant.

However, in 2016, she resigned from her post citing “personal” reasons. Speaking to The Wire then, she had said, “It was a foregone conclusion that was bound to come out sooner or later.” At a press meet in Imphal in March 2016, she also categorically stated, “I was always looked at with suspicion in the department since I am the daughter-in-law of R.K. Meghan.”

However, after the BJP-led coalition government was formed in 2017, Brinda was reinstated reportedly at the behest of New Delhi and assigned to tackle the state’s drug menace that has strong links to the state’s political economy.

The NAB’s successful operations against drug peddling in the state under her leadership have since helped Manipur shine in its fight against narcotics, including the Best Performance Officer Award by FICCI in New Delhi to Brinda – making her a super cop of sorts.

Several studies have been pointing out how the state’s youth, mainly teenagers, were falling victim to several drugs, making it an issue of public concern for some time now. Drug abuse has also been a prime cause for the spread of HIV/AIDS in the state. Naturally then, the NAB and the police officer’s work had public support.

Now to the contempt charge against the police officer.

Brinda had posted a comment on her personal Facebook account on May 23 following the release on bail the drug lord Letkhosei Zou. Significantly, when 51-year-old Letkhosei was arrested along with seven others on June 20, 2018 with drugs worth Rs 27 crore, following a midnight raid led by Brinda, he was also the chairman of the autonomous district council (ADC) of Chandel. Though elected on a Congress ticket in 2017, he had soon switched over to the BJP. The drug haul was from his official residence.

A charge sheet was filed against Letkhosei in the case on December 15, 2018. However, four days later, he was released on interim bail by the special court (ND & PS) on health grounds.

The BJP leader was reportedly complaining of gallbladder stones. Interestingly, after a check-up, the doctor concerned at the government-run Jawaharlal Nehru Institute of Medical Sciences (JNIMS) stated that the treatment could be done best outside the state. Then the chief medical officer of Sajiwa Jail where he was lodged, wrote to the concerned SP that he was being treated at the Catholic Medical Centre where he was advised to undergo surgery on December 21. On December 21, he was admitted to that hospital. However, a day later, that hospital referred him back to JNIMS.

JNIMS said that there was a long list of pending operations and Letkhosei could be given an appointment only in March-April, 2019. But he was allowed to stay on in the government hospital.

Interestingly, when Letkhosei was to appear before the court in the case on January 9, 2019, he was nowhere to be found. He was soon declared an absconder.

In February though, he reappeared and surrendered at the special court (ND & PS) hearing the case. He claimed that he was abducted by armed group KNA Eastern Zalengam (Burma) on January 5, 2019 and had since been detained in Myanmar. His home district, Chandel, borders Myanmar.

Justice A. Noutuneshwar Devi of the special court, on May 21, granted him bail again for three weeks on health grounds. Th. Brinda’s Facebook post was in response to that bail order as the then investigating officer in the case. She is presently Addl. SP (Headquarters).

The post, written in a mix of English and Meitelion, questioned the judge’s contention that “everyone is innocent until proven guilty” in Letkhosei’s case, stating, “He is presumed to be guilty consequent to recovery of contraband from him, and it is for the accused to establish his innocence unlike (in) the normal rule of criminal jurisprudence that an accused is presumed to be innocent unless proved guilty.”

“Just because you preside a court does not permit you to sacrilege it. F**k you.”

The Manipur high court took cognisance of it, leading to the contempt of court charge against her.

Meanwhile, Letkhosei appeared before the special court on June 13 at the end of his bail period and has been sent to judicial custody.

So why is the Manipur chief minister angry with the police officer?

This has to do with what Th. Brinda stated in her 16-page affidavit to the high court in the contempt case.

After the high court took cognisance of her social media post, she was summoned on June 10 and asked whether she had posted an offensive post on Facebook against the special judge and the judiciary, and also shown her “middle finger” to the special judge on May 21 during the bail hearing of the accused.

She admitted to the Facebook post but denied the other charges, upon which the court asked her to file an affidavit in her defence by July 17.

In her affidavit, filed on July 13 at the high court, Brinda not only argued why she made a comment on social media against the special judge but also gave the background to the case highlighting ‘pressure from the chief minister’ to not only stay away from filing the charge sheet in the case but also to release the alleged drug lord. She told the court the chief minister reached out to her through state “BJP vice president Asnikumar Moirangthem”.

In her affidavit, the police officer categorically stated that when she was about to enter Letkhosei’s official residence, she received a WhatsApp call from Asnikumar who asked her about “any developments in drug busting”.

“I told him I was in the middle of an operation and he made me speak to the Chief Minister over the phone. I briefed the CM that we are about to search the house of an ADC member as we suspected drugs were stashed in his quarters. The CM lauded (the effort) and told me to go ahead and arrest the ADC member if drugs were found in his quarter(s).”

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However, she stated, “The following morning (June 20, 2018) past 7 a.m., Shri M. Asnikumar came to my residence at Yaishkul Janmasthan (in Imphal). Both my husband and I were in our bedroom. He was in a serious mood and we talked in my bedroom itself with my husband present.  He told me that the arrested ADC member was Chief Minister’s wife Olice’s right hand man in Chandel and that Olice was furious about the arrest.”

“He told me that CM had ordered that the arrested ADC Chairman be exchanged with his wife or son and to release him. I told him how can that be possible as the drugs were seized from him and not his wife or son. I told Asnikumar I cannot release the ADC Chairman and thereafter he left.”

However, she claimed in the affidavit, that he soon “came back” and told her that “Chief Minister and Olice were extremely furious on my refusal of their order and conveyed that CM ordered once again to let go the ADC Chairman. I told that I will not and let the investigation and court decides the culpability of the ADC Chairman”.

“There were 150 personnel present in the entire operation along with independent witnesses. I asked him what I will tell the whole team and the public how the arrested ADC Chairman vanished after the arrest.”

According to her affidavit, Asnikumar “came back for the third time and told me CM and Olice were adamant that I release the ADC Chairman under any condition. I said I do not need this job and I came back to this service at the request of New Delhi on the promise that I would be supported in the works I do and can leave the job anytime if I am not satisfied.” She admittedly suggested that the BJP leader advise the chief minister “about the danger” of involving himself “in a drug case of this magnitude”.

N. Biren Singh. Photo: PTI

Filing of the charge sheet

The police officer’s affidavit also cited a number of attempts to allegedly scuttle filing of the charge sheet in the case and submitting a copy of it to the special court. On December 14, 2018, she said she along with SP (NAB) met the state Director General of Police (DGP) who asked her about the status of the charge sheet in the case.  “I told him that it had reached the court. He told us, ‘The Honourable CM wants charge sheet removed from the court’. I told DG, ‘It is not possible as the charge sheet is already in the court.’”

“DG then ordered SP (NAB) and me to send the IO (investigating officer) of the case to the court and remove the charge sheet from the court.” She mentioned, “Later that evening, SP (NAB) came back to office and told me in my room that he just came back from meeting with the CM and the CM was infuriated that the charge sheet had still not been removed from court.”

“The following day (December 15, 2018), the then OC NAB, B. Rishikesh Sharma and IO reported to the SP (NAB) and me that one advocate Chandrajit Sharma and the then Imphal West SP Jogesh Chandra (IPS) came to the Lamphel Court and ordered them and special public prosecutor (SPP Jogeshchandra Haobijam) to hand over the charge sheet to them. They reported us that the SPP, IO and OC did not allow the removal of the charge sheet (from the court records).”

This bit was later corroborated in a letter written on January 1, 2019, by the special court judge Yumkham Rother to the DGP, according to the affidavit.

Interestingly, in that letter the judge reportedly said, “The obvious object of the request was to let the statutory 180 days under section 167 (2) CRPC lapse so that the accused person would be entitled to statutory bail.” By then, the special court had granted Letkhosei interim bail on health grounds and told him to appear on January 9, 2019.

Though the advocate denied he was Letkhosei’s lawyer, the vakalatnama that became public proved otherwise. In an article written last year, veteran journalist from the state, Laba Yambem wrote in The Statesman, “It is now alleged that the errand, which Chief Minister N Biren Singh had initially tasked Sharma with, was done after fully knowing that the latter was Zou’s lawyer and to put pressure on the officials concerned to stall the filing of the charge sheet….So, we have the case of a chief minister calling a lawyer to ask about the charge sheet being filed against the biggest drug lord of Manipur to have been  arrested till date.” As per the article, Sharma, who was also the president of All Manipur Bar Association, soon resigned from his post.

Soon after the news was reported in an Imphal-based daily, Brinda said in the affidavit that “Order had come from DG that NAB make a written public clarification that there was no pressure to remove the charge sheet. I told him how can that be possible as the pressure was very much there on both of us (meant the SP-NAB)… I told the SP that he can clarify but I will not. The same day SP (NAB) made a press release (saying) that there was no pressure from anyone to NAB to remove the charge sheet from the court (records).”

The affidavit also mentioned, “The following day CM called my SP, SPP (ND &PS), Lamphel Court and me to his bungalow in the morning. There he scolded me, ‘Is this why I gave you Gallantry Medal. There is something called official secrecy act also!’ CM gave a thorough scolding to us, especially directed to (at) the SPP and me. I still do not understand why we were reprimanded for dutifully discharging our lawful duty to this day”.

In the affidavit, the police officer also in her defence to the contempt of court case said that she firmly believed that her “honest expression” about her perception of bias “and disrespectful conduct of the individual in the guise of a judge who had intentionally sacrilege the sanctity of the court and the seat of justice cannot be regarded as contempt of court” but be “treated as an honest expression within the ambit of Article 19 (1)(a) of the Constitution of India.” She has, however, tendered an apology for using abusive language against the special judge in that post.

Meanwhile, on July 15, the state Congress unit, terming it a “serious matter” in a press conference in Imphal, demanded a CBI probe into the case on the charge made by the police officer on the chief minister.

It is to be highlighted here that Congress MLA O. Henry, whose alleged involvement in a drug peddling case was made a poll issue by the BJP in 2016, has reportedly cross-voted for the BJP candidate in the recent closely contested Rajya Sabha elections along with Rajkumar Imo Singh, a Congress MLA and son-in-law of the BJP chief minister.