BEHIND THE brutal murder of Sukhchain Singh Pali, 22, one of whose legs was chopped off and the other cut above the ankle in this village of Punjab, lies a flourishing illicit business in liquor.
Excise Department officials say there are 27 contractors operating 284 liquor vends in Mansa. Each contractor tries to cut the business of the other by selling liquor stock to bootleggers at cheap prices, who further sell it in the area of the opponent. Pali, a Dalit, was one such bootlegger.
The last FIR under the Excise Act was lodged against Pali on August 27 for possessing illegal liquor. He had been released on bail on October 5, days before his murder.
Gursewak Singh, who admits Pali worked for him, has nine cases pending against him under the Excise Act, for recovery of illegal liquor from him, and a tenth under the Arms Act for possessing an illegal weapon. “Pali and I used to sell liquor after purchasing from contractors at our own prices. This was our source of income,” he says.
Of the six arrested for Pali’s murder, all except one have FIRs against them for liquor smuggling. His body was found from the house of Balbir Singh, the chopped leg recovered from the nearby farm of Rajinder Singh two days later. Two of the other accused, Amandeep and Hardeep, are brothers, the fifth is a daily wager and the sixth a Dalit.
Police say Gursewak was the leader of one group dealing in liquor smuggling, while the other was headed by Amandeep Singh.
Piyara Singh, the Excise and Taxation officer at Mansa, says that in the past six months, they had lodged 204 FIRs under the Excise Act.
“Country liquor is available for Rs 170 in the market, while bootleggers sell it for Rs 100 or 120 per bottle. As there are many bootleggers, there is rivalry among groups. Mansa is also close to the Haryana border, where most liquor brands are available at much cheaper prices. Hence smugglers purchase from Haryana too,” he says.
Sardool Singh, the sarpanch of Pali’s village Ghrangna, says they live in constant fear due to the gang rivalries. “There are petty fights off and on. No doubt the murder has shocked everyone, and I hope police will finally act tough to control the illegal sale of liquor. We hope the fights will end now.”
After Pali’s murder, Chanan Singh, the SHO of Kot Dharmu, in charge of the area, was transferred to police lines. Mansa SSP Mukhwinder Singh said that apart from the six arrested, they may book contractor Happy Singla, against whom they had received complaints.
Pali’s parents work as daily wagers, and the Class X dropout had been working with Gursewak from the age of 17. Lately, he stayed with Gursewak and had managed to buy a small plot of land with his earnings.
Pali was murdered on October 10 evening, and his body was found maimed, as well as with multiple fractures in the arms and bruises in the head.
A few members of the Dalit community, CPI(M-L) leaders and some Mazoor Mukti Morcha activists came for Pali’s cremation as the villagers stayed away. Dalits number around 500 in this village of 6,000-plus people.
Pali’s mother Karamjeet Kaur says he worked with Happy Singla among others before Gursewak, and would give them money for home expenses. “We had asked him to stop this work due to the risks involved. For the past three months, he had started scaling down the work,” Karamjeet cries.
Father Resham Singh says he can’t blame Pali. “When there are no jobs being given by the Punjab government, what else will village boys do? They will pick up bad habits.”
Pali’s younger brother Sukhbir could escape that fate. After Pali’s family staged a dharna at the Civil Hospital for three days, the Punjab government announced compensation of Rs 10 lakh for the family and assured a government job for Sukhbir.