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2020 Hooch tragedy: 18 months on, tragedy, its victims missing from poll map

🔴 Most of the accused, including a Ludhiana-based paint shop owner who allegedly manufactured the illicit liquor, are out on bail while several others are still absconding.

Written by Kamaldeep Singh Brar | Amritsar |
January 20, 2022 4:26:28 am
Gurpal Dhotia, SAD, Majha, 2020 hooch tragedy case, Punjab, Punjab latest news, Punjab assembly elections, Punjab polls 2022, SAD, Punjab Congress, indian expressGurpal Dhotian joining SAD in presence of Adesh Partap Singh Kairon. (Express Photo)

One and a half years after more than 100 people died in Majha region after consuming spurious liquor, averting such tragedies, it seems, is not on the agenda of the political parties fighting pitched battles to secure power in Punjab.

Most of the accused, including a Ludhiana-based paint shop owner who allegedly manufactured the illicit liquor, are out on bail while several others are still absconding.

On Monday, Gurpal Dhotia, the brother of self-styled godman and 2020 hooch tragedy case accused Rashpal Dhotian, joined Akali Dal. While Rashpal is on the run, Gurpal, an accused in the hooch smuggling case, is currently out on bail.

It started in May 2020, when a tussle began between some Congress MLAs and then Punjab chief secretary Karan Avtar Singh over the sale of illicit liquor. Finance Minister Manpreet Singh Badal had even demanded that Avtar Singh be boycotted from the Cabinet meeting. Manpreet, however, had cited “attitude” issue.

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Following that, Congress MLA Amrinder Singh Raja Waring on May 13, through a tweet, resquested then chief minister Capt Amarinder Singh “to kindly initiate enquiry against Chief Secretary Karan Avtar Singh over revenue loss of over ?600 crore”. He also urged CM to remove Karan Avtar Singh from the post of chief secretary “so that he is unable to influence the enquiry.”

Amid allegations of large-scale illicit liquor sale hurting the state’s revenue, Sukhjinder Singh Randhawa, who was the a minister, and some other MLAs also supported Waring’s demand.

Subsequently, on May 17, Amarinder Singh ordered Punjab Police and the excise department to crack down on liquor mafia. The Punjab police subsequently launched Operation Red Rose and recovered 34,083 litres of illicit liquor, and around 8.32 lakh litres of lahan (raw material mixed for distillation of illicit liquor). Nearly 3,500 cases were registered under the Excise Act and 2,664 accused arrested.

Meanwhile, by the last week of May, differences between the Congress MLAs and Avtar Singh were resolved after the latter issued an apology. The crackdown on illegal liquor trade was pushed on the backburner and Avtar Singh took premature retirement. Later, Amarinder appointed him as chairperson of Punjab Water Resources and Development.

Things started returning to normal and most of the arrested accused secured bail. As political pressure eased, police too turned lax. By the end of July and early August that year, more than 120 people died — 94 from Tarn Taran alone — after consuming illicit hooch. It is one of the worst tragedies in Punjab in over three decades. Among the first casualties was Jaswant. His wife Balwinder Kaur, was one of the key accused. She had allegedly been selling illicit liquor for the last 15 years but was never caught.

Political watchers say had the drive launched by Punjab Police continued, the tragedy could have been averted.

Incidentally, most of the victims of the tragedy were from the Dalit community. Considering that the Assembly election date in Punjab has been rescheduled from February 14 to February 20, keeping in mind the sentiments of community, political experts now question the silence of the political parties over the tragedy.

Before joining SAD, Gurpal Dhotian had joined Congress in 2019 ahead of the the Sabha elections. He was inducted into the partyfold by Congress MLA Harminder Gill.

Earlier, Dhotian brothers had joined Congress party in presence of sitting Patti MLA Harminder Gill during 2019 Lok Sabha elections.

“Cases come and go. Cases have been registered but they have not been proved guilty and Gurpal is out on bail,” said Paramjit Singh, former Akali sarpanch of the Dhotian village in district Taran Taran.

He added: “Gurpal has joined Shiromani Akali Dal. He was forced to join Congress after registration of fake cases. Now he is back in the party. He joined SAD in presence of Adesh Partap Singh Karion”.

According to police FIR, Rashpal and Gurpal both brothers were allegedly using the dera in village Dhotian to run their illegal liquor business for nine years. Rashpal was a self-styled godman at the dera and has small following in nearby villages. Both brothers have many criminal cases pending against them. Gurpal was arrested for smuggling 4,000 litres of chemical/spirit liquor in Phillaur on July 9, 2020, just 20 days before the hooch tragedy unfolded.

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