As the toll in Punjab hooch tragedy reached 104 on Sunday, it has emerged that the police were unable to connect the links in supply of illicit liquor that led to the deaths, although a key accused in the case was in their custody since July 9 — at least 21 days before the first death.
Officials said 16 deaths were reported on Sunday from Tarn Taran, Amritsar and Gurdaspur districts due to consumption of the illicit liquor that was allegedly supplied by a network run by two brothers: Rachpal Singh, a self-styled godman, and Gurpal Singh, from Dhotian village of Tarn Taran.
According to police, Rachpal is on the run but Gurpal was arrested in Phillaur on July 9 with nearly 4,000 litres of “chemical/spirit”. “He was escorting a tanker carrying 19 drums, each with 200 litres of spirit. We also recovered from Gurpal’s car two cans, each with 50 litres of spirit,” a police officer said.
The police acknowledged that the first arrest in this chain was recorded even earlier — of Jaswant Singh, an alleged associate of the brothers, on May 21 — after Chief Minister Amarinder Singh ordered a crackdown on the illegal liquor trade. Singh obtained bail later, and was among 10 people who died after consuming the illicit liquor in Muchhal village.
“The nexus could have been detected with the arrest of Jaswant Singh. But we can investigate only according to law,” I-G (Border Range) Surinder Pal Singh Parmar said.
Rachpal, according to the police, runs a dera on the tomb of a Muslim man. His followers have posted a video on YouTube, claiming that he is innocent and has nothing to do with the hooch deaths.
The brothers are said to be well-connected, and used to organise a big cultural event annually in which a known Punjabi singers would perform, drawing a large crowd.
The SHO of Sarhali police station said 17 cases are registered against Rachpal and Gurpal, the first dating back to 2002. The FIRs have been registered under different crimes, including attempt to murder, dealing with fake currency and excise Act.
Gurpal has now been brought on production warrant by Tarn Taran police for identification of people involved in the illegal country liquor racket.
The FIR registered at Phillaur police station on July 9 reads that the police had information about Gurpal and his two men who were bringing chemical from Rajpura to make spurious liquor.
Describing the modus operandi, the I-G said trucks carrying denatured spirit would be stopped at six or seven identified dhabas, whose owners collected hooch from the truck drivers and sold it to one Bhinda, a resident of Rajpura, and one Bittu, who comes from a village near Banur. The duo further supplied the spirit in Amritsar and surrounding areas, according to the police.
Shiv Kumar, Inspector (CIA), Phillaur, said, “They brought spirit liquor from Rajpura. Truck drivers transported it from distilleries to bottling plants. This spirit was being stolen on the way and smuggled to different parts of Punjab. Gurpal Singh was part of this nexus for the last one-and-a-half years. We arrested Gurpal and recovered spirit liquor, which could turn fatal if people consumed it. We mentioned that in FIR and booked Gurpal under IPC Section 328 and 420 and Excise Act.”
Section 328 involves 10-year jail term and bail is difficult under this, he added.
But the police did not invoke Section 328 on Jaswant Singh after arresting him on May 21, leading to his bail.
“If the police had properly investigated Jaswant Singh after his on May 20 arrest the racket could have been busted then itself,” a police officer said.
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