On 9 March 2021, the Special Task Force of the Enforcement Directorate in Delhi conducted raids at the Chandigarh residence of Sukhpal Singh Khaira, a former member of the legislative assembly from the Aam Aadmi Party. Khaira has previously served as the leader of opposition in the Punjab state assembly. The timing of the raids raise questions about the motivation behind them. Summons were issued and searches conducted at a time when Khaira was speaking publicly in support of the ongoing farmers’ protests against three controversial farm laws. Khaira also spoke out vocally about probing the death of Navreet Singh, a farmer who died during a tractor rally against the farm laws on 26 January. Additionally, Khaira has been unearthing cases of Sikh youth who he said have been falsely accused under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act. Khaira is presently the founder and president of the Punjab Ekta Party and an MLA representing the Bholath constituency.
On 21 January, the ED lodged a case against Khaira under provisions of the Prevention of Money Laundering Act, or PMLA. The act authorises searches at the premises of those suspected of money-laundering from the “proceeds of the crime.” On the day of the raids, the ED issued a press release that the “searches are underway” and have “unearthed incriminating documents and digital devices.” However, Khaira said that the press release had been circulated among journalists around 11:30 am, shortly after the searches commenced at 7:30 am. It raises questions about how the ED could have concluded the outcome of the searches in such a short span of time and while they were underway. According to Khaira, the raids, which ended around 7 pm, were premeditated and politically motivated. “Even before the searches were complete or I could present my side of the story, this press release with such a big allegation was floated,” Khaira told me. The ED also conducted raids at the residence of his son-in-law and his associates. It seized mobile phones and other digital devices from the family.
Speaking on the condition of anonymity, senior officials in the ED told me that the raids on Khaira and his family are the first that the STF has conducted in Punjab. In light of this, it is pertinent to examine the context in which the STF was created. In 2019, the STF was conceived as a part of the ED to track international financing fuelling the drug menace, especially in the three border regions of Punjab, Jammu and Kashmir and Rajasthan. According to a 2019 report published in The Tribune, the STF was created “to speedily probe money laundering cases emerging from illegal narcotics trade.” The report added that the force will “look into past and probable cases of illegal narcotics trade, drug crime syndicates … that have national and international links, and such instances will be dealt under the Prevention of Money Laundering Act.”
However, ED officials told me that since its inception in 2019, the STF has not conducted any other raids or searches on anyone in Punjab. According to Khaira, this raises further questions about the motivation behind the raids. He said that in the time period for which he was under the scanner—2008 to 2020—there have been numerous cases of multi-crore drug deals with international connections, in which the names of several policemen and politicians have surfaced, but they have not been raided. In an affidavit in the Punjab and Haryana High Court, the ED pointed to a discrepancy of over three crores in Khaira’s financial transactions. According to Khaira, the STF raiding him for an alleged unaccounted income of a few crores, especially given the context in which it was created, is a sign that the investigation against him is politically motivated. “This figure amounts to a few lakhs per year,” Khaira said, referring to the discrepancy the ED pointed to. “Money laundering is not in lakhs annually, it’s in hundreds and thousands of crores.”
On 12 March, the ED issued summons to Khaira to appear before it on 17 March. The same day, Khaira filed a petition in the Punjab and Haryana High Court seeking the quashing of the investigation and case against him, and the setting aside of the ED summons. He claimed that he is a victim of “grave persecution and harassment being meted out to him for purely political considerations.” He added that summons are a violation of his fundamental rights.