(Reporting by Varinder Bhatia, Man Aman Singh Chhina, Sanjeev Verma and Kanchan Vasdev)
What do you make of an almost three-fold jump in cases registered in Punjab under the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act in five years since 2009? Or, a four-fold jump in amount of heroin seized? Number of arrests tripling? Amount of poppy seized up by almost one and a half times? Depends on who you are asking.
For the state government and the police, these numbers, obtained by The Indian Express, signal a “Herculean clean-up”. But on the ground, as the investigation by this newspaper has shown, there is a lot more dirt in the Augean stables — and the political establishment can’t wash its hands of it.
Ask Shashi Kant, a former Intelligence chief of the Punjab Police. He remembers the time in 2007 when “vague reports” of a flourishing drug trade in the state began doing the rounds.
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“The Akali government had just come in and Sukhbir Badal wanted to convert Punjab into an ideal state. He asked us to compile lists of all black-marketeers, people who were into money laundering and other anti-social elements, and we did prepare the lists. That was the time we also compiled a list on this drug-smuggling,” said the officer, who is now retired.
Over about six months, this list was prepared by a team of officers on the basis of interrogation reports of those arrested on NDPS charges, Shashi Kant said. He claims to have handed over a list of 90 names of politicians and officials to the most senior functionaries of the government. He says he heard no more about it and was removed soon after as ADGP (Intelligence).
Pressed for the list through the RTI Act by an applicant who later approached the High Court, the government told the court that there was no such list.
At another time, the government said the information could not be revealed as it falls under the Official Secrets Act.
In a double tenure that began in 2007, the ruling Shiromani Akali Dal has battled hard against the perception that its politicians are linked to the drug trade. It alleges that Punjab’s drug problem is a hyped “conspiracy” to defame the people of the state.
But its efforts to ward off the drugs issue have repeatedly come up against two harsh obstacles: first, the problem is apparent even to a casual observer, and secondly, because of a case known as the “Bhola multi-crore drug racket”.
The politician-drug nexus
Earlier this week, a Punjab & Haryana High Court bench extended the deadline of the “special-cum-supervisory investigating team” probing the racket, an alleged network of illegal synthetic drug manufacturers and suppliers, to July 31
This was the SSIT’s second extension after April 31. Set up in October 2015, the team was given until December 31 to enquire into 8 FIRs registered in 2013 against a set of more than 25 people who included a Punjab Police DSP and the alleged kingpin of the racket Jagdish Singh alias Bhola of Bathinda; a notable Amritsar leader of the ruling Shiromani Akali Dal Maninder Singh alias Bittu Aulakh; an Amritsar-based industrialist Paramjeet Singh Chahal, a clutch of NRIs and others.
Fifteen people are behind bars and cases are going on against them and others released on bail in district courts at Patiala, Mohali and Fatehgarh Sahib.
These were the Punjab police’s most high-profile arrests in the State’s crackdown on drugs which otherwise netted thousands of small-time addicts and peddlers as The Indian Express investigation of over 6500 FIRs in one year has shown.
But the court set up the SSIT after observing that the Punjab police lacked “scientific methods” to probe the case, also noting that senior police officers lacked the will to be part of investigations. It also said there was an “unexplained silence” by the state police on the case after 2013-14.
As huge sums of cash including Canadian dollars were seized in various raids along with quantities of the synethtic drugs Pseudoephedrine, Ephedrine and “Ice” besides heroin, the Enforcement Directorate set up an independent parallel inquiry, which brought the drug allegations to the doorstep at the very top.
In questioning by the ED, Bhola named deputy chief minister Sukhbir Badal’s brother-in-law and the State revenue minister Bikram Singh Majithia, brother of the Union minister Harsimrat Kaur Badal, as a link between some of the accused. In December 2014, the ED questioned Majithia who has consistently denied the allegations.
No senior member of the government or the police agreed to be interviewed for this report.
As investigations continue, more big names are getting drawn in.
Crackdown & politics
On April 29, the Enforcement Directorate questioned Akali leader and chief parliamentary secretary Avinash Chander for the fifth time, retaining him in its Jalandhar office for over 10 hours as Congress party workers gathered outside and shouted slogans against the Akali Dal’s alleged involvement in the drug racket. The Phillaur MLA’s name was found in the diary of Chunni Lal Gaba, a Goraya-based businessman, an accused in the Bhola case whose properties have already been attached.
As SAD defends itself from a double-incumbency in the lead up to the 2017 election, Punjab’s drug problem and its possible links to high places has become the opposition’s favourite issue. But while the Bhola case has pulled in high-profile politicians of the ruling party, those who have studied the problem say the involvement of politicians, difficult to establish as it may be, is across parties and at all levels.
Occasionally, it erupts into the open.
Last June, the Rajasthan police arrested two Fazilka block level leaders, one from SAD and the other from the BJP, travelling together in a car with 7.5 kg of poppy husk. The BJP leader was the chairman of the Punjab Infrastructure Development Board and was considered close to Health Minister Surjit Kumar Jayani. Their parties distanced themselves from the two immediately.
Last August, the then BJP state president had to face calls to step down after a former assistant, Jimmy Sandhu, and another person described by his family as a member of the BJP, together with a Ferozepur DSP were arrested for accepting Rs 15 lakh to get a man booked under the NDPS Act and Arms Act off the hook.
“The politician-drug nexus is one of the factors responsible for the spread of the menace. But you cannot blame any single party. It cuts across party lines,” said Dr Pramod Kumar, Director, Institute of Communication and Development (IDC), Chandigarh.
Said his colleague, Dr P S Verma, who has conducted a detailed study on the issue of drugs that makes a brief reference to political links: “There certainly is political patronage. Otherwise the trade cannot flourish, “ says Verma.
Back in 2008, an IDC report on drugs was tabled in Punjab Assembly by then health minister Lakshmi Kanta Chawla. The report describes a “smuggler-police network” that is “deep”, to the extent that transfers of police officers are “routed through some big names in the drug business”.
Without naming, it refers to a Punjab minister who was involved in selling opiates, and “several DSPs” of Punjab Police “who are considered more aggressive drug dealers than the conventional traders”.
Shashi Kant said the 90 names he handed over to the government were contained in a a list that was a “four-page document’.
“It was a very sensitive document. There were politicians from across the spectrum, some sitting ministers, a number of former ministers, sitting and former MLAs, certain very senior police officers, administrative services officers and a large number of Station House Officer rank officers. A few NGOs were also in that list,” said Shashi Kant.
Sidetracking the issue
SAD had hoped that after the initial noise over the Bhola disclosures, the issue would die a quiet death. It looked as if that wish had come true as other issues roiled Punjab one after the other — crop failure, farm suicides, and the unrest over the desecration of the Guru Granth Sahib.
“Drugs are no longer an issue,” a senior BJP leader told The Indian Express in late 2015, explaining why the party, which had once seemed on the verge of breaking off its ties with SAD over this issue, was now quiet about it. “Now, it is really important for the Akalis and BJP to stand together against forces that are trying to rake up communal trouble in Punjab,” he said, referring to the desecration incidents.
Days later, the attack on the Air Force base at Pathankot brought drugs back centre-stage, with links between politicians, cross-border drug rings and Pakistan-based terror groups blamed for the ease with which the terrorists managed to infiltrate the Punjab border.
It again retreated in the noise over the Sutlej Yamuna Link, but has returned in a full blown way over the CBFC’s standoff with the makers of the film Udta Punjab, much to the jubilation of the Congress and AAP.
They look at the numbers — NDPS arrests jumping from 5092 in 2009 to 17,001 in 2014 and heroin seizure from 155 kg to 637 kg in the same period — and say this is proof of how alarming the problem has become.
Sociologist Ranvinder Singh Sandhu, former professor at the Guru Nanak Dev University, Amritsar, and author of the 2006 report that Rahul Gandhi controversially quoted on the extent of the drugs problem in Punjab, says the reason it keeps coming back at the state government is because of its refusal to address the prevalence continuing instead to treat it as a political issue.
“They are not interested in understanding the problem. In 2012, after the Rahul Gandhi controversy, I got a call from some official in the Chief Minister’s office. They wanted me to withdraw the report,” he told The Indian Express.
The government had not commissioned a single study to assess the extent of the problem, Sandhu said, lamenting that the belatedly set up Drug Prevention Board has taken no initiatives either. “It’s just a resting place for bureaucrats,” he said.
“Punjabi youth have high aspirations. But they have no way to fulfil them. Today, they don’t have access to quality education or to skills development. They cannot enter the job market. That is why they take to drugs. The government is doing nothing to help. It thinks the answer lies in the police,” Sandhu said.