|Col Ajay Choudhry in police custody. Telegraph picture
Imphal, Feb. 24: A colonel and an airline employee were arrested in Manipur after a chase while allegedly trying to smuggle a rigorously controlled drug valued at crores in a phoney army convoy this morning.
The haul of psuedoephedrine tablets, suspected to be bound for the neighbouring Myanmar to be converted into illegal recreational and performance-enchaning drugs, has been valued between Rs 15 crore and Rs 20 crore. Some sources put the value at Rs 30 crore.
The arrested officer has been identified as Col Ajay Choudhry, 49, posted in Imphal as public relations officer of the 57th Mountain Division. The officer said he was innocent.
Pseudoephedrine is used to treat common cold but it is also diverted to make amphetamine, a psychotropic drug. According to pharmacology specialists, pseudoephedrine is a rigorously controlled substance just as narcotic drugs but may be sold by retail pharmacies only when combined with other ingredients as a cold-and-cough remedy.
The largest such haul in Manipur in recent memory comes at a time the defence establishment is caught in the middle of a scandal over helicopter purchase.
Choudhry has been on deputation to the defence ministry as a public relations officer in Manipur and his current assignment was essentially civilian.
But the alleged drug bust raises grave questions because the ministry’s and the army’s symbols of immunity have been used to facilitate the alleged smuggling. It also coincides with a government decision to call in the CBI, following a clamour by civil society in Manipur, to investigate a series of seizures of contraband at the Imphal airport.
The case strengthens suspicions that the medicinal substances are being smuggled out on a large scale to make banned psychotropic drugs. A retail market sales analysis by the drugs journal Monthly Index of Medical Specialities, India had some years ago revealed excessively high sales of such medications in some northeastern states.
“The sales were disproportionately high in relation to the populations of some of the states,” said Chandra Gulhati, a pharmacology expert and editor of MIMS India. “The suspicion, then, was that the medications go into smuggling networks,” Gulhati added.
Police said Choudhry was leading a convoy of two Boleros and one Tata Safari from Imphal to Moreh, a trade hub bordering Myanmar and located 189km from the Manipur capital.
Choudhry’s Bolero sported a red beacon and a ministry of defence licence plate was pasted over another plate. The other two vehicles had “army” labels pasted on their windshields, the police said.
On the basis of a tip-off, the convoy was intercepted by a police team around 7.30am today at a check post at Pallel in Thoubal district, around 54km from Imphal.
When a police officer tried to search the vehicles, Choudhry identified himself as an army officer and the convoy sped away. The police team pursued the vehicles and alerted a commando complex located half a kilometre down the road.
By the time Choudhry’s convoy neared the complex, armed commandos had blocked the road and taken position. The vehicles then stopped and Choudhry and five others were arrested.
As many as 25 cartons and seven airbags packed with five brands of pseudoephedrine tablets — Respifed, Hilcold-T, Polyfed-C, Trep and Actidin — were found in the three vehicles.
Official sources said the tablets would have been smuggled from Moreh into Myanmar, where amphetamine tablets are manufactured. One strip of pseudoephedrine tablets costs between Rs 3.75 and Rs 6 but it fetches more than Rs 300 in the black market.
“In principle, pseudoephedrine may be extracted from such combinations to produce amphetamine but this would be a cumbersome and an expensive affair,” said Divakar Goli, a pharmaceutical biotechnology expert and principal of a pharmacy college in Bangalore. But because it is readily available as a bulk drug, such tablets could be an alternative source for the drug, he said.
Among the arrested is a sepoy who, defence sources in Delhi said, was part of Choudhry’s staff and was listed as a “deserter” for the past 40 days. Another person in custody is Ngairangbam Brojendro Singh, an assistant manager (security) of a private airline. The three others are from Manipur.
The six arrested have been charged under the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act but the specific role each person allegedly discharged was yet to be made public. The police are yet to ascertain the origin of the drugs consignment.
At the police station, Choudhry told reporters: “These people are my friends. They asked me to accompany them to Moreh and I went with them. I did not know there were tablets in their vehicles. On the way, they wanted to shift some of the cartons to my vehicle and I allowed them. Apart from this, I did not know anything.”
Although Choudhry has been discharging civilian duties as PRO on deputation to the defence ministry, he belongs to the Bihar Regiment, a combat-enabled unit. The colonel hails from Allahabad. His family is said to be based in Delhi.
Sources said there was some initial debate on if he should be tried under the Army Act or under the CrPC. “Since the alleged crime took place when he was on a civilian assignment, it is better if he is tried under civilian law,” a source said in Delhi.