Manipur crisis: The ex-cop whose war on drugs has pitted her against CM Biren Singh

Five years ago, Brinda Thounaojam made the biggest drug-related arrest in Manipur history. Today, the ex-cop is one of the most vocal critics of Chief Minister Biren Singh’s policies in the midst of the ongoing ethnic conflict.
Brinda Thounaojam
Brinda Thounaojam
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When Brinda Thounaojam appeared for the preliminary exams of the Manipur Police Service Commission in 2011, she immediately felt she was not welcome to work in Manipur’s police force. Though she was 34th in the order of merit among the 138 successful candidates, the state government, then led by the Congress, delayed her appointment letter for two years. It was only after several petitions and a court order that she was inducted into the 9th Indian Reserve Mahila Battalion in 2013.

The reason for the state government’s hesitation was that she was the daughter-in-law of RK Meghen, former chairman of the banned insurgent group United National Liberation Front (UNLF), who was at the time in the custody of the National Investigation Agency. “He is my father-in-law and they (state government) always believed I would leak state secrets to his organisation,” Brinda tells TNM. “There was an inevitability to my decision of walking away from civil service,” she says.

However, even she could not have imagined the turn of events that led to this inevitability in 2020. She made the biggest drug-related arrest in Manipur history and kicked up a storm when she revealed in a court affidavit that she was pressured by Chief Minister Biren Singh to scuttle the case. Three years on, the case remains an example of how the Chief Minister’s ‘war on drugs’ is not all that it appears to be. Brinda, now a politician with the Janata Dal (United), has also emerged as the principal political figure opposing Biren Singh in the middle of the violent ethnic conflict in the state.

A graduate of the Indian Law Society’s Law College under Pune University, Brinda worked as a lawyer and an activist before applying to join the Manipur civil services. The state’s stalling in Brinda’s appointment was centred around her taking part in protests in 2010 demanding to know the whereabouts of her father-in-law RK Meghen when word got out that he had been handed over by Bangladesh to India. Though he was ‘captured’ in Bangladesh on September 29 2010, his arrest in India was recorded more than two months later, on November 30, at Motihari in Bihar near the Nepal border.

In this period, protests were held questioning the Indian government about Meghen’s alleged arrest. “I took part in the protests. Wouldn’t you if your family member disappeared into thin air?” Brinda asks.

At the time, Brinda had never met her father-in-law as he had gone underground in 1975 when Rajkumar Chinglen, Brinda’s husband, was only a few days old.

The (in)famous father-in-law

RK Meghen, also known better by his honorific name Sanayaima, is the former chairman of UNLF, which was founded in 1964 to establish a sovereign and socialist Manipur. But the Indian government declared it a banned group, which forced its leaders to go underground. A post graduate in International Relations from Jadavpur University, Meghen is part of the Meitei elite in Manipur. He is the great grandson of Manipuri king Tikendrajit Singh, who was a military commander during the Anglo-Manipur War of 1891. Meghen’s father Madhuryajit Singh was commissioned into the Indian Military Academy in 1933 while his brother Ranendrajith Singh was a fighter pilot in the Indian Air Force and took part in the 1965 and 1971 Indo-Pakistan conflicts.

Meghen lived much of his life in the jungles of the north eastern states but far from being a gun-wielding rebel, he represented the UNLF at the United Nations Sub-commission on Indigenous People in Geneva and made brief trips to Southeast Asian countries for conferences and talks.

“The state failed to see that when I protested in 2010, it was to produce him (Meghen) in a court of law and subject him to a fair trial as per the Constitution,” says Brinda.

Eventually, Brinda joined the police service and spent three years there before submitting her resignation in 2016. At the time she was a deputy superintendent of police and was unhappy that she was distrusted by the state government. Later, she says, she was approached by “agents in Delhi” to return to service. 

“We were approached by agents from Delhi, that they wanted me back in service, that I would be given all the support needed for proper discharge of my duties. My elders and my patrons felt that I should cooperate and check again what is taking place within the system. I knew I could not work effectively in the long run, but I took up the opportunity,” Brinda says.

In this time, there was a change of power in Manipur and Biren Singh had taken over as Chief Minister with the promise of fighting the drug menace in the state. The BJP had made the alleged involvement of the then Congress MLA Okram Henry in a drug peddling case a poll issue. Okram then joined the BJP. “The new government did not have a problem with my background,” Brinda adds.

Under the BJP government, Brinda focused on narcotics cases and was also presented a Gallantry Award by Biren Singh in 2018 in recognition of her “continued effort against the smuggling and sale of drugs in the state.” She became the first officer from the state’s Narcotics and Affairs of Border Bureau to be granted a state gallantry award. “This goodwill was short-lived… It lasted till I tried to arrest some big fishes,” Brinda says.

Biggest drug-related arrest in Manipur history

It was on June 19, 2018 that Brinda led a team of police officials to raid the residence of the then BJP member and alleged Kuki drug lord Lhukhosei Zou in Chandel. Brinda says Zou was arrested along with seven others and the items seized included 4,595 kg of heroin, 2,80,200 World is Yours (a mixture of methamphetamine and caffeine) tablets, Rs 57 lakh cash, and Rs 95,000 in old currency notes. Zou spent six months in jail and was granted bail by the ND&PSA court in Manipur four days after the state police filed a chargesheet.

The case took a sensational turn when Brinda submitted an affidavit in the Manipur High Court in 2020 detailing how she was pressurised by Chief Minister Biren Singh to shield Zou. The 16-page affidavit outlined how the state BJP vice president Asnikumar Moirangthem approached her thrice to ask her to drop the case on the day after the arrest was made, She also said that Asnikumar called her when the raid operation was underway.

“Asnikumar told me that the arrested Autonomous District Council (ADC) member was Chief Minister’s wife Olice’s right-hand man in Chandel and that Olice was furious about the arrest,” reads the affidavit filed by Brinda. 

Looking back at the day after the arrest, Brinda says, “They had many considerations – money and political interests. Zou is from the Kuki community, and votes from the community are important to get Olice elected”.

 “Zou was a powerful man and he was vehemently protected by the head of the government,” Brinda says. “When Biren Singh interfered in the arrest and conviction of Zou, it sent a clear message that he wanted the situation to continue in the same manner as before. This hardened my resolve to leave the service,” she adds.

After leaving the police force, Brinda turned to politics and although she was a fierce critic of the ruling BJP in the state, there were rumours in political circles in Manipur that she might join the party. Photos emerged in January 2021 of an ID card showing her to be an active member of the BJP. However, she denied the link and eventually contested in the Assembly elections last year on a Janata Dal (United) ticket after joining the party in January 2022. She lost to her BJP rival Thokchom Satyabrata Singh in the Yaiskul constituency, but that has not deterred her from continuing in politics.

In the ethnic conflict that has continued for over three months in Manipur, Brinda has emerged as one of the few voices within the Meitei community to criticise Biren Singh. She describes the situation in the state as a “total collapse of law and order”. “Aren’t people being burned alive? Aren’t people being raped? Are these examples of law and order being in place?” she questions.

“It’s not spontaneous violence but rather the result of bad long-term policies and partisan politics of the government of India and the government of Manipur. People have been divided on ethnic lines and are blaming the other community for what is really the failure of the state,” Brinda says. However, she refuses to comment on the involvement of underground groups, on both the Meitei and Kuki side, in the current violence. “It is unsubstantiated, as of now,” she says.

Stance on key policies mirrors BJP’s

On policy issues and the rhetoric against the Kuki community, however, Brinda’s stance corresponds to the BJP’s.

Biren Singh’s critics have often cited Brinda’s arrest of Lhukhosei Zou to justify that the Chief Minister’s war on drugs was protecting those involved in the drug trade who had close relationships with the ruling party. “Every community is involved to some degree in the drug trade. The anti-drug initiatives are a selective assault on a certain group of people in the name of war on drugs,” says Brinda.

However, she adds that the drug proliferation in the state is mainly due to the role of Kuki militant groups in protecting the interests of the drug trade. “Drug proliferation of this magnitude cannot take place without the protection and security provided by militants, who are armed. So the cartel is being run by people involved in drugs from all communities. And certainly people from the Kuki community have bigger roles in this because all militant groups that are involved in the trade are from the Kuki community, starting from cultivation of the plant to the trade,” she says.

This is similar to Biren Singh’s diatribes targeting the Kuki community. In March, he made his position on the issue clear saying in an interview, “These people [the Kukis] are encroaching everywhere, whether reserved forests, protected forests, doing poppy plantations and drugs business.”

The issue of the drug trade in Manipur has gone hand in hand with another volatile issue – that of illegal immigrants, particularly after the military coup in Myanmar in February 2021. While neighbouring Mizoram has accepted refugees from Myanmar, the Manipur government issued a notification stating that it will not accept refugees.

Brinda says there is a need to carry out the National Registry of Citizens (NRC) exercise in Manipur, a view also held by the BJP and Biren Singh. “NRC should be conducted, but first we should seal the borders of Manipur and then conduct NRC in Mizoram and Nagaland. And after its completion, we should conduct NRC in Manipur. Only then we’ll be able to find out who is who,” Brinda says.

The NRC was first conducted in Assam and it flagged nearly 19 lakh citizens as possible foreigners. The vast majority of those flagged were Bengali. Such an exercise has found widespread support in Manipur among Meitei and Naga civil society organisations, and even some Kuki organisations. Critics, however, say that it will be used to target Kukis since they share a kinship with the Chin tribe in Myanmar. The only political party opposed to the NRC in Manipur is the Communist Party of India (Marxist).

According to Brinda, the immediate task is to launch a genuine effort to get the warring groups to talk. “Manipur cannot be balkanised in any manner. The buffer zone that exists between the hill and valley, it cannot sustain and the government of India has to remove this. And there has to be a responsible government in the state to bring the two warring communities to the table for talks because we have to ultimately find a solution,” Brinda says.

“Most importantly, we need to recognise the role of the state in this. This is not an ethnic conflict but a conflict between people who want to control the money that comes along with the drug trade. We need to find out which are the institutions benefiting from the drug trade and the violent conflict continuing,” adds Brinda. 

Manipur Dispatches: Our reporters Prajwal Bhat, Haritha John and Bhuvan Malik are in Manipur to provide you with exclusive, in-depth ground reports that delve into the heart of the matter. If you believe that human rights violations in a distant land should be a topic of conversation in this part of India, support our intrepid truth-seeking mission. Contribute here.

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