‘I want to win medals for India’

Four years in jail as an undertrial in a Narcotics Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act (NDPS) case hasn’t dimmed national table tennis player Lalrinpuia Lalchhuankima’s hopes to play for India
Lalrinpuia is the eldest of four children born to Lalchhuankima, a class 4 state government employee and Loisi, a homemaker (Satish Bate/HT PHOTO)
Lalrinpuia is the eldest of four children born to Lalchhuankima, a class 4 state government employee and Loisi, a homemaker (Satish Bate/HT PHOTO)
Published on Mar 18, 2022 09:32 PM IST
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ByVinay Dalvi

Mumbai: Four years in jail as an undertrial in a Narcotics Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act (NDPS) case hasn’t dimmed national table tennis player Lalrinpuia Lalchhuankima’s hopes to play for India.

“I want to get back in shape and win some medals for the country,” the 24-year-old player from Mizoram said shortly after he was acquitted by a special NDPS court on March 14.

Lalrinpuia was released from the Taloja Central Jail in Navi Mumbai the following day, on Tuesday.

Lalrinpuia is the eldest of four children born to Lalchhuankima, a class 4 state government employee and Loisi, a homemaker. He began playing the sport at a young age encouraged by his father who was a district-level table tennis player. In 2015, when he was 17, Puia won the Youth Boy’s title in the 77th Junior and Youth National Table Tennis Championships held in Dharmashala. The previous year, he represented India in South Asian Junior Singles Championship held in Islamabad, Pakistan.

“He was an outstanding sportsperson. His defensive play was solid; he was one of the best players in defence in the country at that time. He was certainly among the top 8-10 juniors in India who had the prospect to progress to the senior men’s level. He has been proven innocent now, but his career’s most promising phase—the golden period for an athlete, as we say—has been robbed. Mentally, physically and even in terms of his game, we don’t know if we can bounce back from this phase,” said Sandeep Gupta, Dronacharya awardee and national coach in international junior tournaments that Lalrinpuia took part in.

On December 12, 2017, Lalrinpuia (then 19) was caught at the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj International Mumbai airport with 3.9kg methaqualone, a banned psychotropic substance, estimated to be worth 60 lakh in the illicit drug market. The Central Forensic Science Laboratory in Hyderabad, where a sample had been sent for testing, found traces of heroin, acetyl codeine and mono acetyl morphine in the powder. Methaqualone is a Scheduled 1 drug in the United States, and is sold as Mandrax in South Africa. Given the commercial quantity found, stringent provisions of the NDPS Act was invoked, and Lalrinpuia was arrested by the Narcotics Control Bureau (NCB).

The legal cost to fight the case was enormous, but Lalrinpuia had the support not only of his family but also his state.

“I come from a very poor family. My father works as a mechanic with the public health and environment department in Mizoram. My whole legal expense of around 17 lakh was contributed by the Mizoram Table Tennis Association and prominent people from Mizoram who have been very supportive to me. I don’t want to let them down. Today, I am out, and they are one of the reasons behind it,” Lalrinpuia said from the Mizoram House in Dadar, where he has been staying since his release.

“We believed in Lalrinpuia’s story … that he was not aware that [his bag] contained drugs. So our Association decided that we will support him. We contributed to his legal expenses. If he wants to come back to the game we will make sure he gets everything that he wants,” said Lalhmingliana Colney, senior vice-president of Mizoram Table Tennis Association.

At the time of his arrest, NCB officials claimed that they had specific information about a bag containing drugs, which was being carried by the table tennis player. However, his acquittal order, which was made available on March 18, stated that there was a discrepancy of the flight number mentioned in the NCB’s charge sheet and on a photo copy of the baggage tag attached to the charge sheet, thus throwing into question the very ownership of the bag — and drugs.

“Lalrinpuia who was wrongfully convicted in Mumbai in the year 2017 finally got justice today! I congratulate and wish the former Indian cadet, sub junior, junior & youth category champion Lalrinpuia to comeback stronger than ever. At last justice triumphs,” Robert Romawia Royte, minister of State (Independent charge) for Sports and Youth Service, tweeted after the table tennis player’s acquittal.

On March 14, as special judge AA Joglekar pronounced his judgement, Lalrinpuia, who was present in the court, felt a moment of disbelief that his ordeal was finally over. “When the judge acquitted me of all the charges, I didn’t believe it and asked my lawyer whether what I heard was true. Though I believed that truth would triumph, I was not sure when that day would come for me. My bail plea was rejected twice by the Sessions Court and twice by the Bombay high court. That had made me lose all hope, though I had never had conscious possession of the drugs,” the youngster said.

H. Lalthanchama, Lalrinpuia’s cousin and a practising lawyer in Mizoram said the provisions applied to his brother were very stringent. “I saw that the sections applied to him were very stringent and attracted imprisonment up to 20 years. We knew from day one he was innocent. So we went to the Supreme Court and got his case expedited due to which today he is out so early.”

The apex court had expedited the trial in 2020.

“I knew that I was a victim but I was hopeful that I would be out and play the game again. I used to regularly exercise inside the jail to keep up my fitness. Forest rights activist Mahesh Raut [arrested in the Elgar-Parishad case] was lodged in the same barrack. We made dumbbells of water bottles and used those for exercise,” he said.

“I missed my family a lot. I have two younger sisters and a younger brother. I have not seen them for the last four years,” Lalrinpuia said.

“During the Covid-19 pandemic, I managed to speak to my family, especially my mother, once a week over the phone. On Monday, when I told her that I was acquitted and was coming home to eat food made by her, she burst into tears. I want to go home and then get back to the game,” he said.

“My mother and I share a very close bond. I missed her a lot. I want to visit Bandra Bandstand along with her and feel like a free bird,” he said.

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