Sloth, stupor and shame in Punjab

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Police forces in the state are caught in a vortex of drugs and politics. Is there a way out?
Amandeep Singh, who has been a constable with the Punjab Police for three years, thanks Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal for his job. “I was appointed under the Director General of Police’s quota on a priority basis,” says the 33-year-old, offering his swanky Android phone to show a black- and-white picture of a young Badal with his grandfather. It’s an old family connection. The constable is a burly man— a one-time kabbadi player—with high cheekbones that almost eclipse his small eyes. He sits with his legs folded on the bed of a private ward at Adesh Hospital’s drug de-addiction centre in Sri Muktsar Sahib district of Punjab. This happens to be the home district of the Badals: Prakash Singh, the state’s CM, and his son Sukhbir Singh, deputy CM.

Amandeep is one of 10 cops being treated here for a habit he was unable to break. It’s going well. He hasn’t had any bhang for the past six days now. At one time, he would consume Rs 1,000 worth of it every day, mixing it with milk and drinking it like a beverage. “I had to pay a big price for it,” he says, “My family and professional life suffered. Nobody took me seriously.”

He holds his grandfather in awe, who, among other remarkable things, had a vast appetite for various forms of cannabis. “He led a quality life, would have bhang daily and never felt the need to visit a hospital,” he says with undisguised admiration. In contrast, his ‘addiction’ has been a “curse”. Every day spent in rehab seems longer than a year, he sighs. “I am on a solitary voyage to a distant island of hope.”

Money was never a factor; Amandeep earns much more from his ancestral farms than any job with the police would ever pay him. Nonetheless, for 10 years he was a slave to this habit, and he blames his social milieu for it. “Nearly 90 per cent of lower ranking cops consume drugs in some form or another, even if not everyone is an addict,” he says in Punjabi, “It’s rampant [in the Punjab Police].”

The scene is rather different in the general ward, a hall with a dozen beds in two rows. In here, it is hot and damp, with the sun bearing in through large windows. Most patients are lying still, seemingly in various stages of unconsciousness, and the room is filled with an eerie silence. Balwant Singh Bhullar, the hospital’s security chief, refuses to identify which of the patients are policemen; however, it is not difficult to figure this out. At least three are wearing the blue track pants that cops wear for sports. The past 10 days in rehab might have been their toughest, guesses Bhullar, explaining that the first few nights are critical. Some lose control and run amok, pleading for a ‘fix’, while others turn violent in desperation.

“Often,” says Bhullar, “an addict has to be tied to the bed”—as was the case of a nephew of a deputy Superintendent of Police lodged in a room near Amandeep’s. This 23-year-old struggles to keep his eyes open. He is being treated for heroin addiction. “It destroyed the man in him,” says an elderly gentleman in a white turban, a relative who is attending to him, “but he is fighting back.” This is his sixth day in rehab, and his craving for smack remains a nightmare. Stirred to speak, the patient expresses hope. “A few days more, and I will be free as a bird,” he says, slurring. “I am not like this because of the drugs; this dizziness is because of drugs to keep me away from drugs,” he claims, forcing a smile. Seconds later, tears well up in his eyes: “See what smack has made me?” And then, an instant later, he is livid, his body stiffening as he rubs his feet repeatedly on the mattress. “I know the name of the supplier,” he says, “a cloth merchant in Jalandhar. The whole city knows him. It’s an open secret that he’s a drug peddler. The police know him. In fact, I was introduced to him by a local constable. But no one will catch or arrest him.”

Another addict is a 35-year-old head constable; he paces up and down the corridor. He doesn’t want to be named in fear of being killed by the local drug mafia. His face is bloated but seems both assertive and curious, and he talks in a monotone, as if lecturing a class. “It’s white gold,” he says, referring to smack, which he took up because “drugs are in fashion”. It’s easy for cops to indulge in drugs, he says. “When we seize drugs, say 10 kg of smack or heroin or even poppy husk, only a part of it, about 70 per cent, is shown officially as confiscated. The rest stays with us. What [cops] do with it is anyone’s guess. I used to sell it a cheaper rate,” he says with an air of generosity. “But if you play with fire, your hands will get burned.”

Drugs, according to Amandeep Singh, are easily available in Punjab’s prisons too. At Modern Jail at Faridkot, he claims, smack sells for Rs 4,000 per gram, more than three times the open price outside. Singh says he learnt of this from the undertrials lodged there that he would escort to court. Many jail inmates are addicts— and it makes him suspicious. “This cannot happen without the connivance of jail authorities, no?”

Muktsar’s Senior Superintendent of Police Kuldeep Chachal refuses to discuss the alarming rate of drug addiction among the men in khaki. The unofficial reason, often cited off-the-record, is that policemen are vulnerable to temptation since they oversee the maalkhana, the storehouse for psychotropic substances seized by the police. The bulk of it is heroin, the common man’s poison, while synthetic ‘party drugs’ used by the wealthy are not uncommon either.

In Chachal’s view, instead of taking punitive action against errant cops—suspension or dismissal from service—it makes more sense to “identify black sheep and reform them”. To this end, he has initiated a special programme. The first step involves getting addicted cops to overcome their fear of dealing with the problem. Many have admitted their addiction and sought help. For several others, wives and other family members have stepped forth.

Muktsar is only a few hundred kilometres from the Indo-Pakistan border, which is assumed to be highly porous for narcotics destined inward. Poppy farming, however, is rampant within India, says SSP Chachal, particularly within a belt in Rajasthan and Haryana that serves as a source of opium and heroin (a refined form of the opium extract) for the global narcotics trade.

The government’s claim is that Punjab is a victim of suppliers. “Punjab is an international transit route for the flow of drugs from Pakistan and Jammu and Kashmir,” Deputy CM Sukhbir Singh Badal has stated, “Most of the drug inflow in Punjab is from Pakistan.”

Yet, last November, a 1,000-kg haul of drugs seized was found to have been processed in various cities across Punjab and Himachal Pradesh. Whispers of an alleged police-politician nexus running a drug cartel in Punjab have gained such traction that tackling it was among the electoral planks that saw the debutant Aam Aadmi Party win four Lok Sabha seats here. The deputy CM, who is also president of the ruling Shiromani Akali Dal—which did rather badly in the recent polls—had loudly denied any patronage extended to the drug trade by politicians in Punjab. But drugs remained a hot-button issue for the opposition. “All parts of Punjab were in the octopus-like grip of different kinds of alcohol and drug abuse,” says Nobeljit Singh, head of the Sikh Youth of Punjab, which is the youth wing of the Dal Khalsa.

Earlier this year, a wrestler-turned-drug supplier, Jagdish Singh Bhola, claimed that he had funded the electoral campaigns of many politicians. He alleged that Bikram Singh Majithia, the state governement’s revenue minister and brother- in-law of the deputy CM, was a key figure in the drug cartel—a charge that Majithia denied as baseless. The opposition, however, is demanding a CBI probe that the Badal government in Chandigarh may be unable to ignore. Also, three months ago, former Director General of Police of Prisons of Punjab Shashi Kant named some politicians that he alleged were involved in the illicit drug trade; he also claimed that senior police officers were aware of these operations.

Under pressure to act, the Punjab government has declared a ‘war against drugs’, setting up a Punjab State Narcotics Control Bureau—headed by Inspector General of Police Ishwar Singh—that is supposed to be ‘independent’ of the Punjab Police. It has asked the High Court of Punjab and Haryana to set up fast-track courts for drug-related trials, and has promised tough action on other fronts as well. Over the past month, Punjab’s Director General of Police Sumedh Singh Sain—who rejoined duty after a brief replacement by TN Mohan mandated by the Election Commission for the election period—has launched a special drive to rid the state of the menace of drugs. Some 3,353 arrests were made and 3,000 cases registered in just 15 days. The government also dismissed 25 SHOs for suspected links with drug racketeers, although their names have not been made public. In the first three days of the drive, the police confiscated 2.5 kg of heroin, 3.75 kg of opium and 377 kg of poppy husk.

“If [the police] aren’t involved, how come they were able to seize so much in a matter of a few days?” asks a DGP with a twist of irony. Meanwhile, others remain sceptical of how earnest the ‘war’ is. “The state government has arrested hundreds of addicts, mostly youth. While they arrest consumers, none of the big suppliers or producers has been arrested so far,” says Captain Amarinder Singh, former CM and now the Congress’ only Lok Sabha member from Punjab.

Ata distance from the Muktsar rehabilitation centre is an extraordinary village called Kot Ise Khan, in Punjab’s Moga district. Almost every family in this village of some 1,200 voters has at least one member who is either a drug peddler or an addict. Men, women and minors included.

The road to Kot Ise Khan has a police barricade, and every vehicle that passes by is put to a spot search; the recovery of poppy husk packets is routine. The village itself is a maze of lanes and bylanes with houses of bare baked kiln bricks all around. At its centre, where three roads converge at a chaupal space canopied by a banyan tree, about a dozen men are seen leisurely going about their tasks. A team of policemen, one of the three stationed in the village to curb drugs, is busy frisking all those who turn up on motorcycles. The locals dare not protest. Everyone is under suspicion.

There are a few multi-storey mansions that stand out amidst the modest houses. “You won’t find such houses in Delhi,” says Ravi Sher Singh, the area’s SHO.

The locals do have stories to tell— though always in past tense—of their brush with narcotics. Sixty-year-old Furan Nukara admits to have made a fortune selling drugs. He has no qualms about it. “[My wife] was the kingpin,” he says with a casual grin, “She used to receive consignments from across the border. It all ended with her death two years ago.” Since then, he has led the life of a law-abiding citizen, he claims—as onlookers break into laughter.

Nukara was an addict himself and has spent weeks in state-run de-addiction centres. If he gets back to peddling drugs, SHO Sher Singh cautions, the consequences would be far harsher. “Stay warned,” he tells Nukara in thet Punjabi.

At least Nukara is not absconding, as nearly half of the villagefolk have been since the police begun their post-poll crackdown. Given its reputation as a drug hub, this village has become the prime focus of attention.

At the far end of the village is a four- storey house plastered with cement, a rarity in a rural setting like this. Its outer gate of stainless steel is firmly locked. This house belongs to Minadar Kaur, the wife of one Bagh Singh. The local lore is that she departed in a big hurry, without even packing her clothes. “Achcha kaam thha,” (“It was good work,”) says her 60-year-old brother-in-law, Virsa Singh; and by ‘good work’, he means ‘lucrative’. “She used to sell heroin,” he adds, driving the point home. On a good day, she could earn Rs 1 lakh, but then she apparently had to pay off government officials to stay in business. “All she took with her was a big stash of drugs in a bag. No one knows where she has gone,” says the brother-in-law.

The village’s former sarpanch Veer Kaur, a 50-year-old woman, complains that many innocents have been nabbed by the police while most of the real culprits are missing. The place bears a deserted look and farms are going unattended.

Farming is still the official occupation of most residents of Kot Ise Khan. Almost to emphasise as much, one farmer—also accused of drug peddling—has had a life- sized statue of bulls pulling a plough erected on the third floor terrace of his house, overlooking the rest of the village.

According to Virsa Singh and Veer Kaur, the local custom is for families to marry within the village, which keeps relationships tightly bound and well knit into a network of mutual support and secrecy. This makes it difficult for the police to break in.

But that still doesn’t explain what makes this particular village such a peculiar hub of narcotics. Why Kot Ise Khan? No one has an answer. Veer Kaur feels it’s just media propaganda. On the way back, a head constable at a roadside police station offers a frank explanation. The network is intricate, he says. The drug cartel cannot operate without the connivance of politicians and the police. While a few cops have been dismissed for their drug links, of late, few expect the nexus to come apart. “We maintain our own four- wheelers, pay for our fuel from our pockets [since only the SHO is entitled to free fuel: 250 litres a month], and employ our personal vehicles for official work. How can we sustain our jobs? Obviously, someone pays for it. Drug money is easy money,” says this constable, raising his voice above the noise of his car’s air-conditioner. He then jams his foot on the accelerator, saying, “Jab tak yeh Pakistan se aana bandh nahin hota, hum kya karenge?” (Until drugs don’t stop coming in from Pakistan, what can we do?)