Substance and Shadows

The Punjab government’s sham war on drugs

A police deputy inspector and his colleagues display recovered narcotics before destroying them in Amritsar. NARINDER NANU / AFP / Getty Images
02 September, 2021

PUNJAB’S BATHINDA DISTRICT was abuzz with activity in December 2015. The Shiromani Akali Dal was in power in the state, with Parkash Singh Badal as chief minister. The fledgling Aam Aadmi Party was trying to break into national politics beyond its Delhi stronghold. The Congress, the main opposition party, was beginning its campaign for the 2017 Vidhan Sabha elections by organising a massive rally, a show of strength at the holy town of Talwandi Sabo. The newly anointed president of the Punjab Pradesh Congress Committee, Amarinder Singh, was to make a speech. The deputy chief minister, Sukhbir Singh Badal, had claimed a month earlier that the Congress leader would not be able to draw a crowd. Bathinda is a stronghold of the Badals.

The dais was crowded with Congress members jostling for space. Amarinder, standing at the centre, asked for water to wash his hands. Then, he called for a party colleague to hand over his copy of the Gutka Sahib, a holy book containing select hymns from Sikh scriptures. “Here is the Gutka Sahib,” he said, raising the blue hardcover in his left hand. “And over there, three kilometres away, is the Damdama Sahib”—one of the holy seats of Sikhism. Singh went on to make some spectacular promises.

Chaar haftea’ch nashea da lakk tod ke chhaddu”—I will break the backbone of drug addiction in four weeks—he declared. The crowd erupted in cheers. He also said he would “finish corruption,” reduce youth unemployment and “cancel all FIRs registered against the Congress cadres” by the Badal government. “I have taken an oath in the name of our tenth guru to achieve all this,” he said, raising the Gutka Sahib once more. “If you ask how would I be able to achieve this, only time will tell.”

It was a dramatic event, one that voters in Punjab would be unlikely to forget. He was referred to as the “future chief minister” several times at the rally. Throughout the following year, in 2016, the AAP also built up public pressure on the drugs issue, making promises of its own. The party accused Amarinder of going soft on one of the most controversial figures associated with Punjab’s drug crisis: Bikram Singh Majithia. The brother-in-law of Sukhbir Singh Badal, Majithia was the revenue minister at the time and looking to contest the upcoming elections from his pocket borough of Majitha. Arvind Kejriwal, the AAP leader and chief minister of Delhi, was openly accusing him of facilitating the drug trade, something that until then was not spoken of in public quite so brazenly. In August 2016, an emboldened Amarinder too said at another Congress rally, “I will throw Bikram Singh Majithia behind bars if the Congress forms the government in 2017.”