In November 1985, about a day before the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances (NDPS) Act went into effect, the malkhana—warehouse—of the district court at Osian, in Jodhpur district, Rajasthan, was broken into and burgled. It was the night of 12 November, or early in the morning on 13 November—the day of Diwali. The burglar broke the lock for the main gate and the malkhana, went inside, raided packets of contraband and evidence, and disappeared into the darkness. There were no witnesses: the watchman would later say that he had left early because he had not been feeling well. In the morning, a court employee arrived at the complex and found the malkhana in disarray. When the police arrived, they took note of what was missing: a lungi, some betel nuts, a few biscuits, and 10.428 kilograms of opium. By the next day, 14 November 1985, the NPDS act had become the law of the land.
In January 1986, Mohan Lal, an illiterate farmer then in his late twenties or early thirties, confessed to breaking into the malkhana and stealing the opium. Lal lived about 30 kilometers away from the Osian court complex, in the village of Mathania, with his mother, father, and four brothers. According to police records and subsequent court judgments, Lal was taken into custody on 15 January 1986, with regard to a separate First Information Report (FIR). It is unclear what he was originally suspected of, but he reportedly made a confession while he was being questioned. He was then read a disclosure statement admitting to the break-in and thefts at the court complex, which he signed. Then, Lal reportedly led the police and two independent witnesses to the underpass of a small bridge nearby. There, hidden in a pit, was the missing opium. With a signed confession, corroborating witnesses, and over 10 kilograms of recovered opium, the state's case against Mohan Lal seemed headed for a just and speedy outcome. Over the next three decades, however, it would prove to be anything but.
Passed in September 1985, the NDPS act was part of a global shift towards “tough on crime” legislation that intended to suppress the supply and demand of drugs by establishing harsh punishments for drug-related crimes. The government of the United States of America, led by President Ronald Reagan, had exerted pressure on countries such as India, which supplied drugs to the international market, to pass stricter laws to curtail drug cultivation, trade, and use. Despite the subcontinent’s long history of opium trade and internal use, the Indian government, then under Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, buckled.
Prior to the passage of the NDPS, opium possession was prosecutable under the All-India Opium Act of 1878. This colonial law restricted opium consumption to registered opium eaters, and was intended to bar recreational abuse, while regulating religious and cultural uses. Until 13 November 1985, the maximum punishment for possession of 10 kilograms of opium was one year in prison with a Rs 1000 fine. On 14 November 1985, under Section 18 of the NDPS Act—which deals with the possession of opium—the same crime was punishable by a mandatory minimum of 10 years in prison and a fine of Rs one lakh.
Lal was charged with violating Section 457 and 380 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), which outlaw breaking into a home at night to commit a punishable offence and theft, respectively. He was also charged with violating Section 18 of the NDPS act, even though the theft took place a day before the act came into effect. He pled not guilty to both charges. Lal’s father sold a portion of his land to pay for a lawyer, a distant relative named Surajmal Megwal. In 1987, while his case was being heard at the sessions court, Lal was released on bail. In 1989, the court found him guilty on all counts. He was sentenced to three years’ imprisonment for each of the IPC violations, and ten years for violating the NDPS act, to be served concurrently. He was also ordered to pay a fine of Rs one lakh or, on failure to pay, face an additional year of imprisonment.