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The drugnet

The Akali Dal-BJP government has arrested over 5,200 people, mostly small-time drug users, leading to allegations of arbitrariness

Written by Chitleen K Sethi , Navjeevan Gopal , VARINDER BHATIA | Updated: July 6, 2014 11:18 am
Most of the drug seizures made during the drive are small, as miniscule as one gram of heroin, indicating that the arrested men are mostly addicts or small-time peddlers. Most of the drug seizures made during the drive are small, as miniscule as one gram of heroin, indicating that the arrested men are mostly addicts or small-time peddlers.

On May 29, police in Batala, Gurdaspur, arrested Lovedeep Singh, 24, a constable with the Punjab Police, with 1 gram of heroin and booked him under the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act. According to the FIR filed at the Sadar police station, a team headed by ASI Malkit Singh, who is both the complainant and the investigating officer in the case, came across Lovedeep when they were “searching for bad people”. The FIR says that they saw a young man coming towards them from the “Bhullar village side”. On seeing the policemen, the man “panicked and turned around”. The police confronted him, asked if he was carrying intoxicants and sure enough, he was. The FIR says the police frisked the man and recovered 1 gram of heroin from the “right pocket of his pants”.

The same day, another FIR was lodged at the same police station against Lovedeep’s friend Gurmukh Singh. The circumstances mentioned in both the FIRs are identical right down to the last detail — the suspicious gait of the accused and the 1 gm heroin recovered from the “right pocket of his pants”. Only the names of the policemen and the accused and the place of arrest — in Gurmukh’s case, it’s Dheer village in Gurdaspur — are different.

Both Lovedeep and Gurmukh are now out on bail. Both say the police picked them up from Dhariwal town. Both admitted to The Sunday Express that they used drugs, but denied they ever sold drugs or carried any when they were caught. They alleged the police kept them in illegal confinement for a day.

“The police are trying to please the government by planting small quantities of drugs on people who are already in the grip of drugs,” says Lovedeep’s uncle Baldev Singh. ASI Malkit Singh dismissed these charges as “baseless” — “something every accused and their families would say”.

On May 20, the ruling Akali Dal-BJP government, fresh from the reverses the coalition had suffered in the Lok Sabha elections, launched a massive crackdown on the drug network in the state. While the Punjab Police had already made a few big arrests such as those of Jagdish Bhola, a former Punjab Police DSP, and NRI Anoop Singh Kahlon last year, the setback in the Lok Sabha elections had forced the government to launch a more visible crackdown. During the elections, the Opposition had targeted the government over the easy availability of drugs and growing addiction among the youth and alleged that the drug trade was flourishing with patronage from the Akali Dal. The Aam Aadmi Party, which won four seats on debut in the state, had been especially vocal, attacking the state government and announcing an intensive campaign against the “drug menace, mafia culture and corruption”.

So in its zeal to be seen as cracking down effectively, the government has since May 20 arrested over 5,200 people, mostly men under 45, and booked them under various sections of the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act. But the FIRs in many of these cases read the same, with only the names, addresses, places of arrest and recoveries varying. Most of the drug seizures made during the drive are small, as miniscule as one gram of heroin, indicating that the arrested men are mostly addicts or small-time peddlers. Of the 74 kg heroin seized since May 20, the largest single haul was of 13 kg, reported from Tarn Taran. Of the 15,946 kg of poppy husk seized, the largest single haul was 3,500 kg, reported from Ferozepur.

In almost all the cases, the complainants are policemen who apparently know an intoxicant when they see one. In most of the FIRs, the police named the drug they seized — heroin, ephedrine, pseudoephedrine or amphetamine — without waiting for laboratory results.

This is how a typical arrest would go: the police stop the accused, the startled man takes out a little plastic bag from his pocket and he is arrested. The “little plastic bag” usually contains a “white intoxicant”, “capsule” or “tablet”. In another variant, the accused is stopped because he is roaming about in a “suspicious manner”. He allows the police to carry out a full body check on him. A plastic bag is recovered from his pocket, he is arrested and put behind bars.

Invariably, the legal requirement of the presence of a gazetted officer as witness is done away with. Since the recovery is shown as “sudden”, the FIRs usually say there was no time to call a government witness and the accused willingly gave his consent for a body-check by the policemen.

If the FIRs read similar, the police say it’s with reason. “FIRs registered under the NDPS Act must conform to strict procedural guidelines. Therefore, a certain similarity could be detected in these FIRs. These investigating officers have been trained to write a standard FIR to make sure that nothing of significance is omitted,” says ADGP (Law and Order) Dinkar Gupta.

But the zeal with which the police are cracking down on drug users has led to allegations of arbitrariness and extortion. The criticism is that the police are only going after small-time drug users instead of cracking down on the big names.

“They are arresting addicts and not those who sell drugs. The families of the addicts are already going through hell and the police action has only worsened their problems. Even if a big smuggler is arrested, all investigation comes to a halt if he names a politician. The police say they have arrested over 130 big smugglers but not a single politician,” says Sunil Jakhar, Leader of Opposition in Punjab.

Anti-drug campaigners too say the government’s anti-drug drive is just one step in what should have been a three-pronged strategy involving detoxification, rehabilitation and sensitisation. Even the de-addiction programme is not well thought out, they say. “What the government is doing at this stage is just detoxification, that too without going into the details and background of addicts. All of them are being treated with synthetic morphine which is a strong weaning-off medicine. They will become even more hardened addicts,” says Dr Pushpinder Singh, a doctor in Ludhiana whose NGO, Guru Gobind Singh Study Circle, has been running a sustained anti-drugs campaign.

But the police claim the operation has been a success. Over 130 heroin smugglers are in the police net. By June-end this year, the Punjab police had seized 330 kg of the drug. The six Nigerians who were arrested from Delhi on June 18 have revealed an extensive heroin distribution network with links in Nigeria, Brazil, Pakistan, South Africa, Canada and US, and within India, in Chhattisgarh, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Gujarat.

“Presently, the heroin distribution network in Punjab stands broken and there is no way anyone can get hold of the drug in Punjab,” claims Gaurav Yadav, IG, counter-intelligence and the man in charge of the Special Operations Cell, the control room of the Punjab Police’s crackdown on drugs.

Yadav dismisses charges of arbitrariness in the operation and says their strategy of going after small-time drug users is deliberate. “The idea behind going after street-level peddlers is to dry the supply chain completely which makes drugs unavailable for consumption. It’s common for drug users to shift from being a consumer to being a peddler. For an addict, the best way to get money for a continuous supply of drugs is to start selling it himself,” says Yadav.

He denied the Opposition’s charge that the big names were being protected. “Since last year, we have been  busting some major national and international drug trails. But we realised that when you catch the big fish alone, it does not have an impact on the street. We have reasons to believe that our strategy has worked.”

With more than 5,000 people arrested since the anti-drug drive began on May 20, jails and de-addiction centres in the state are packed beyond capacity. For instance, Amritsar jail, the largest in the state, has more than 4,000 men against a capacity of 1,615, and inmates are being lodged in bathrooms.

The operation and the recoveries have exposed the extent of the rot that had set in. Drugs in Punjab are now a multi-billion racket that operates with the patronage and involvement of politicians, middlemen and enforcement authorities, a well-oiled nexus that spans several countries and involves NRIs, celebrities and businessmen.

The political angle

It was the arrest of Jagdish Bhola that revealed the extent of political involvement in the drug racket. Bhola, an Arjuna Award winning wrestler who became a deputy superintendent in the Punjab Police and was dismissed in 2005 after he was found involved in the drug trade, was arrested last November from Murthal in Haryana. He was allegedly part of an international network that sourced ephedrine, pseudo-ephedrine, decongestants and stimulants used in a variety of medicines, converted these into party drugs like ‘ice’ and sent these consignments to Canada.

The police got to Bhola based on the interrogation of NRI Anoop Singh Kahlon, who was arrested with 26 kg of heroin from his house in Zirakpur near Chandigarh. A car registered in the name of Olympian boxer Vijender Singh’s wife Archana was found parked outside Kahlon’s house. While Vijender emerged clean, his sparring partner Ram Singh was arrested.

After his arrest, Bhola named a string of politicians, businessmen and other influential people. Some of them have been arrested, while some others are being investigated. They include:

n Youth Akali Dal leader Maninder Singh Aulakh alias Bittu Aulakh was arrested in November last year.
n Aulakh’s businessman friend Jagjit Singh Chahal, who owned pharmaceutical units in Himachal Pradesh, was also arrested in November. Chahal allegedly diverted ephedrine and pseudoephedrine from his units for party drugs ice and ecstasy. He told his interrogators that he used Punjab government vehicles to smuggle drugs.
n Akali leader Swaran Singh Phillaur had to resign as Minister of Jails and Tourism in May after the Enforcement Directorate summoned his son Damanvir for questioning.

But the biggest name to have spilled out was that of Bikram Singh Majithia, Revenue Minister in the Akali Dal-BJP government and Deputy Chief Minister Sukhbir Singh Badal’s brother-in-law. Bhola told his interrogators that Majithia had got drugs supplied to his contacts in Canada. The Punjab government has given Majithia a clean chit, calling Bhola’s allegations a political conspiracy. Majithia has not been questioned so far.
Congress leaders have also accused former Akali MP Rattan Singh Ajnala and his legislator son Amarpal Singh Bony of facilitating Aulakh’s smuggling operations. But like in Majithia’s case, the government has given the father-son duo a clean chit.

Deputy Chief Minister Sukhbir Badal said, “This crackdown against drugs is unprecedented. Both Ajnala and Bony had no relations with any drug racket. As far as Majithia is concerned, Bhola took his name at the Congress’s behest.”

The khaki connection

In the last six months, at least 12 Punjab police officials, including inspectors, sub-inspectors, assistant sub-inspectors and head constables, have been suspended for their alleged involvement in the drug trade, while 65 others are facing inquiries.

During interrogation, drug lord Raja Kandola, who was arrested from Delhi in August 2011 and is now lodged in Tihar jail, had reportedly named Bathinda range IGP P S Umaranangal and Balwinder Singh, former SP (D) at Mohali, as “close friends who helped” him. However, both denied the allegation.

In May, Kulwant Mann, SHO of Kahnuwan police station in Gurdaspur, was dismissed for allegedly taking money to let off a drug peddler. In Amritsar, ASI Gurpreet Singh and head constable Avtar Singh were dismissed for involvement in the drug trade.

But the biggest name was that of Saji Mohan, a 1995 batch IPS officer and former zonal director of the Narcotics Control Bureau in Chandigarh, who was arrested in January 2009 with 12 kg of smuggled heroin from an Oshiwara club in Mumbai. The arrest revealed the extent of the police-drug smuggler nexus in the state.

What lies ahead

For the police, the challenge now is to make sure the cases stand in court. An officer probing the Bhola case said most of the drug cases involve influential people and are mired in litigation. There are several bail applications and writ petitions pending in the Punjab and Haryana High Court, including one by Bhola’s father Balchhinder Singh demanding a CBI inquiry into the cases against his son. Besides, the large number of accused and witnesses have slowed down court proceedings. But Patiala SSP Hardayal Singh Mann, who cracked Bhola’s network, says, “Bhola is one of our prime catches. We have asked the government to appoint a special public prosecutor for all the cases where Bhola is accused. We are on a strong footing in all the cases.’’
(Inputs from Kanchan Vasdev and Gagandeep Singh Dhillon)

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