In December 2015, at an election rally in Bathinda, Punjab chief minister Amarinder Singh swore by the “Gutka”—the Sikh holy book—that he would wipe out the “drug menace”in the state within four weeks if elected. After nearly 17 months in power, it is clear that he underestimated this challenge. In June, news of over 20 drug-related deathsprovoked fear and outrage in Punjab. Videos of parents grieving over their dead children went viral on social media, and spurred, to a large extent, protests in various districts in the state. In an interview to the Hindustan Times in July, Singh seemed unfazed by this mobilisation. He suggested that it was the duty of the public to tackle the menace: “It has started becoming a movement, and that’s the only way it can be sorted out. Police can only bring pressure.” He also suggested that it was a good thing that people in certain villages were taking the law into their own hands to thrash drug peddlers and “those taking drugs.” The next step, perhaps, will be to speak of good lynchings and bad lynchings.
Opioid dependence in Punjab is now an epidemic and referring to it is as a “menace” barely does justice to the situation. In 2016, the Society for Promotion of Youth and Masses, an NGO working on issues of health and drug addiction, released its Punjab Opioid Dependence Survey. Conducted in 2015, the study found that about 2.3 lakh adults—nearly one percent—of Punjab’s population were “opioid dependent.” In comparison, the United Nation’s 2017 World Drug Report showed that approximately 0.4 percent of the global adult population suffers from opioid use disorders—a broader category that also includes dependence. That Punjab’s dependence average is more than the global average despite the latter being a broader category must begin to give us a sense of the scale of the epidemic.
Despite this, successive governments in Punjab have failed to tackle the problem effectively. Because of mounting public pressure following the June deaths, Singh has recommended a series of measures, some of which have been widely criticised as a knee-jerk response. The measures include mandatory drug tests for government employees, banning the sale of syringes without prescriptions, and the most controversial one: introducing a death-penalty amendment into the Narcotics Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act. Singh believes that such harsh measures will put “the fear of god” in drug traffickers. Given that a growing body of research indicates that the death penalty does not deter or reduce crime, and that state executions can be passed only in the “rarest of rare cases,” these amendments to the NDPS, if passed, would do more harm than good.
Existing provisions of the NDPS already allow for death penalty in the case of repeat offenders, but the Punjab government wants the centre to extend that to first-time offenders as well. Singh is not the first politician in the history of drug regulation to harbour the belief that drug addiction can be addressed by killing drug traffickers. Philippine’s populist leader Rodrigo Duterte has whipped up considerable popular support for extrajudicial executions of drug traffickers. Inspired by him, Sri Lankan president Maithripala Sirisena is moving ahead with plans to end the moratorium on executions in Sri Lanka that has now been in place for 42 years.
With this demand to amend the NDPS, Singh has ended up sending confusing signals on his position on the death penalty. In March 2012, amid high tension on the orders to execute Balwant Singh Rajoana—a member of the Khalistani organisation Babbar Khalsa, who was convicted for the assassination of Punjab’s former chief minister Beant Singh—Amarinder Singh strongly opposed the death penalty and praised the UPA government for staying the execution. Later, in September 2017, when the Law Commission of India recommended the abolition of capital punishment, he said the “death penalty is against basic human rights.” Indian politicians rarely take an abolitionist position and it was refreshing to see the Congress chief minister publicly take a progressive stand on a divisive issue. Clearly, a lot has changed in the past ten months. In his July Hindustan Times interview, Amarinder Singh cited, with approval, the examples of the regimes in Saudi Arabia and Thailand chopping off the heads of drug traffickers as effective measures. (Thailand has actually used the lethal injection since 2003, has never used beheading as the mode of execution and has executed three people in the last decade.)