As death toll in the hooch tragedy mounted to 84 in Punjab, the state police on Saturday claimed that it had busted an illicit liquor racket spread across several districts from Tarn Taran to the Shambhu border (Patiala district) with Haryana. A day after ordering a probe into the deaths, CM Amarinder Singh Saturday suspended seven Excise & Taxation officers and inspectors, along with two DSPs and four SHOs of the Punjab Police. The CM also announced Rs 2 lakh ex-gratia compensation each to the families of the deceased.
While the death toll in Amritsar stood at 11 on Saturday, it touched 62 in Tarn Taran. Punjab Police has linked these 73 deaths in Amritsar and Tarn Taran to an inter-district racket spread.
Batala in Gurdaspur district has so far reported 11 deaths. Police is still probing if the 11 deaths at Batala are linked with same racket or not. The first seven deaths in the hooch tragedy were reported on the intervening night of Wednesday and Thursday from two Amritsar villages — Muchhal and Tangra.
25 arrests so far
Punjab Police on Saturday arrested 17 more persons taking total arrests in the case to 25. It claimed to have conducted over 100 raids on during the day in the three affected areas — Amritsar (Rural), Gurdaspur and Tarn Taran, along with several other places in and around Rajpura and Shambhu border.
DGP Dinkar Gupta said that those arrested include mastermind of the illicit liquor racket, a woman kingpin, a transport company owner, a wanted criminal, apart from owners/managers of various dhabas from where the illicit liquor was being supplied.
Batala DSP Parvinder Kaur said, “We are still probing if deaths in Batala are linked with nexus busted today. So far we have arrested five persons in relation with the deaths in Batala.”
Balwinder Kaur was first person to be arrested from Amritsar’s Muchhal village in the case on Thursday evening. After her interrogation, Amritsar (Rural) police arrested those involved in bringing spurious liquor from Tarn Taran to Amritsar (Rural) jurisdiction. Police claimed that one arrested accused, Govinderbir Singh alias Gobinda from Jandiala in Amritsar, is mastermind behind illicit liquor mafia in Amritsar (Rural) area.
Describing the modus operandi of the accused, the DGP said trucks carrying denatured spirit would stop at 6-7 dhabas, that have now been identified. Dhaba owners, said the DGP, would then collect the hooch from truck drivers and sell it to one Bhinda from Rajpura and Bittu from a village in Mohali. This spirit would then be supplied by these people to Amritsar and its surrounding areas. Denatured alcohol is highly toxic and it can cause blindness, liver damage and death. At least two victims had complained about blindness before death in Amritsar’s Muchhal village.
The DGP said that Bhinda (already wanted by Tarn Taran Police) was arrested by Rajpura police, while raids were conducted at the house of Rupinder Singh alias Bittu in Patiala, but he wasn’t found there.
The dhabas involved in the racket include Jhilmil Dhaba, Green Dhaba, Chhinda Dhaba. All of them have been sealed.
Also, 750 litres of lahan (raw material mixed for distillation of illicit liquor) was seized on Saturday from village Baghaura in Patiala from where three persons — Satnam and Rashem and Lakhwinder – were identified as the ones involved in the racket.
Prem Singh, the owner of Azad Transport, was also arrested by Rajpura police during a raid. Another key accused Beeri, of village Deo in Tarn Taran, has also been arrested.
In the raid at Jhilmil Dhaba, whose manager Narinder Singh have been arrested, 200 litres of lahan was seized. The dhaba owner, Harjit Singh, has been named in the FIR.
At Green Dhaba on Rajpura-Chandigarh Road, police station Zirakpur, approximately 200 litres of “diesel-like” liquid was recovered in nearly 5 small containers, which truck drivers were selling to the dhaba owner. The dhaba has also been sealed and its owner, Gurjant Singh, has been arrested.
One Narinder Singh, the owner of Multani Dhaba, has also been arrested in the case, said the DGP.
Another 150 litres of lahan was recovered from one Parminder Singh and 200 litres from one Baljit Singh. Both were arrested in Amritsar.
Meanwhile, a man, Gurpal Singh of Tarn Taran, who was arrested on July 9 for smuggling of spirit in Phillaur, is being brought on production warrant for further identification of the persons involved in this racket. He was arrested with 4,000 litres chemical/spirit in Phillaur.
CM suspends 13 excise, police officials
During his Facebook Live #AskCaptain interaction Saturday, the CM announced the suspension of ETOs (Excise & Taxation Officers) Lovejinder Brar from Gurdaspur, B S Chahal from Amritsar and Madhur Bhatia from Tarn Taran. The Excise & Taxation Inspectors (ETIs) who have been suspended with immediate effect are Ravi Kumar (Gurdaspur), Gurdeep Singh (Amritsar) and Pukhraj from Fatehbad and Hitesh Prabhakar from City Tarn Taran in Tarn Taran district.
The police officials suspended on charges of negligence in duty included DSP Jandiala (Amritsar Rural) and DSP Sub-division Tarn Taran, and the SHOs of Tarsikka (Amritsar Rural) police station, Batala city (Batala police district), Sadar Tarn Taran police station and Tarn Taran city police station.
The CM warned that strict action will be taken against any public servant or others found complicit in the case. Describing the police and excise department failure to check the manufacturing and sale of spurious liquor as shameful, he said nobody will be allowed to get away with feeding poison to our people.
Amarinder said he has directed the police to trace the culprits and charge all the people involved in the case. On Friday, the CM had ordered a magisterial inquiry by Divisional Commissioner, Jalandhar, who has been asked to submit his report within a month.
Capt heads murderous govt: SAD
Meanwhile, Shiromani Akali Dal president Sukhbir Singh Badal attacked the state government, alleging that CM Amarinder Singh heads a “murderous” government, which had the “blood of more than 80 Punjabis on its hands”.
In a statement issued in Amritsar, Sukhbir alleged, “The hooch tragedy is the direct and natural consequence of the patronage given to Congress leaders, including ministers and MLAs, for freely carrying out rampant illicit liquor trade in the state. It’s a murder, pure and simple. All the guilty, including ministers and ruling party MLAs, be arrested.” He asked the CM to step down immediately owning the moral responsibility for this “horrendous crime”.
Sukhbir also rejected the magisterial probe ordered by the CM and demanded an independent inquiry by a sitting judge of the Punjab and Haryana High Court.
Responding to the attack, the Chief Minister urged Sukhbir not to “politicise the tragedy”, saying such cases had happened earlier too under the SAD-BJP regime.
He said that similar incidents had occurred in 2012 and 2016 in Gurdaspur and Batala, respectively and several lives were lost. Amarinder pointed out that in the Batala case, no FIR was even registered and no action taken against the main accused.
Big fish will be caught: Kahdoor Sahib MP
Khadoor Sahib MP and Congress leader Jasbir Singh Dimpa on Saturday claimed that big fish will be arrested in the latest hooch tragedy. Among the deceased, 73 are from Khadoor Sahib parliamentary constituency.
Talking to The Indian Express, the MP said, “Those who sold the liquor to victims have been arrested. It is our attempt to now go after those who had manufactured and supplied spurious liquor for sale. Now police is about to catch the big fish.”
He added: “Crackdown of Captain Amarinder Singh on illegal liquor trade had almost finished small furnaces brewing liquor at the village level. So the smugglers got into this new modus operandi of using methanol to make illegal liquor.”
📣 The Indian Express is now on Telegram. Click here to join our channel (@indianexpress) and stay updated with the latest headlines