ED raids Punjab MLA Sukhpal Khaira, who opposed centre on farm laws and raised Navreet case

Sukhpal Singh Khaira speaks to media persons during a press conference in Amritsar in August 2018. In an interview to The Caravan in early February, Khaira had said the farmer’s during the tractor rally was a “murder” that needed a “judicial probe.” NARINDER NANU / AFP / Getty Images
09 March, 2021

On the morning of 9 March, the Enforcement Directorate conducted a raid at the residence of Sukhpal Singh Khaira, the founder and president of the Punjab Ekta Party and the member of legislative assembly from the state’s Bholath constituency. Khaira was formerly with the Aam Aadmi Party and has served as the leader of the opposition in the state assembly. The ED simultaneously conducted a raid at 9 locations in as well as two locations in Delhi, according to an official statement by Sanjay Kumar Mishra, the chief of the ED. The senior advocate RS Bains, who was at Khaira’s residence, told us that the ED officials present there were not forthcoming on the reason behind the raids. He termed the raids “targeted.”

In the statement, sent over WhatsApp at around 7 pm, Mishra stated that the raids were connected to Fazilka smuggling racket, a 2015 case when a Border Security Forces constable was arrested for allegedly smuggling drugs across the India-Pakistan border. The statement named nine inviduals who were being raided in connection with the investigation, including Khaira and his son-in-law, Inderveer Singh Johal. It alleged that Khaira was “actively aiding and supporting the gang of international smugglers and enjoying the proceeds of crime.” The statement added, “The searches are underway and have unearthed incriminating documents and digital devices.” A senior ED official in Punjab told us on the condition of anonymity that officers from the Delhi office had gone to Punjab for the raid, and that local ED officials “only provided logistical support.”

In October 2017, a district court in Punjab’s Fazilka convicted nine accused persons in the case. On the same date, the court also issued summons to Khaira and four others to appear before them as additional accused persons. Khaira challenged the summoning order in the Punjab and Haryana High Court, arguing that the summons could not be issued after the judgment was pronounced. The high court dismissed his challenge, but in the appeal before the Supreme Court, the issue was referred to a larger bench in May 2019. The matter has since been pending, awaiting to be listed before a constitution bench.

Khaira is a vocal critic of the controversial farm laws enacted by the Bharatiya Janata Party, and has repeatedly supported the massive ongoing protests calling for their repeal. Khaira was also among the few politicians who spoke out about the death of Navreet Singh, a farmer who died during a tractor rally against the farm laws on 26 January. Eyewitnesses at the scene said the Delhi Police shot Navreet—an accusation supported by his family. Forensic experts who studied his post-mortem report confirmed that his injuries were consistent with gunshot wounds to the head. But the Delhi Police maintain that Navreet died by accident, by crashing into a police barricade while driving his tractor at a high speed.

On 1 February, Khaira wrote to the Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal, asking for a judicial probe into Navreet’s death. That day, Khaira told The Caravan that Navreet’s death was a “murder” that needs an “investigation and a judicial probe.” He added, “There is every possibility that he may have been shot first and then his tractor banged into the barricades and overturned.” (An edited version of Khaira’s interview to The Caravan has been reproduced at the end of this report.)

Multiple attempts to contact Khaira through the day were unsuccessful. At 1.22 pm, he posted to Twitter:

ED is being used to silence my voice because I supported farmers, raised their concerns, spoke against atrocities of Govt & attacks against peacefully protesting farmers. Farmers & their supporters were sent NIA notices, they have been jailed & tortured & now ED. #ED_CagedParrot

Khaira also addressed the media outside his residence. He confirmed he had been served a notice for a case of money laundering, but denied any wrongdoing. He said that the ED raids against him “prove that the central government is scared” of him. “The whole nation understands the reason for this—anyone who speaks against this government is threatened and intimidated.”  He mentioned the names of the actor Tapsee Pannu and the director Anurag Kashyap, who had also spoken out in favour of the farmers’ agitation, and who were raided by the Income Tax departments a few days earlier. Khaira added that he was under debt to the tune of Rs 2.5 crores, and that he did not have enough money to return the amount. Khaira later told a select group of his colleagues in the assembly that he “was just quizzed about expenditure over his daughter’s marriage”—an MLA who was among this group told us, on the condition of anonymity.  

According to Bains, the ED search against Khaira resulted from him publicly speaking up about the Navreet Singh case, which has “become a major embarrassment issue for the [central] government.” Bains added, “The ED is meant to track the smuggling and narcotics money used for fuelling terrorism activities, but Khaira has been targeted … The only crime Khaira has done is to support the farmers’ protest and take up the case of Navreet, which is a crime in this country.”

Bains was present at Khaira’s home in Chandigarh at around 8 am, when the raid began. He said the ED asked him to be an independent witness to the raid— the presence of two independent witnesses is mandatory for a search under the Prevention of Money-Laundering Act of 2003 and the Code of Criminal Procedure. Bains declined the request due to his friendship with Khair and because he had prior commitments, and would not have been allowed to leave the premises once the raid began.

Ranjit Singh, a retired judge of the Punjab and Haryana High Court who is also Khaira’s brother-in-law, arrived at the residence by 8 am as well. As a relative of Khaira, he was refused as an independent witness. At the time, “they were not letting anyone inside and did not share any reasons of this illegal raid. This is very arbitrary, and the officials said that they are not supposed to disclose,” he said.

Bains said that a large contingent of ED officials were present for the raid. After he and Singh repeatedly asked the officials present for details on the reasons for the raid, the officials quoted Section 17 of the Money Laundering act, which authorises searches at the premises of those suspected of money-laundering for the “proceeds of the crime.” Bains noted that this was a broad term that could encompass a wide range of possessions, including jewellery, bank accounts, properties and so on. He said he and Singh asked the ED team for details of the complaint based on which such a search can be conducted, but that the officials told him “that they are only bound to share it with their officers and nobody else.” Bains said, “Though they shared the case number of the case registered with the ED in this regard, but no other official information was conveyed.”

Ranjit Singh said of the raid, “This is a consequence of the freedom of speech Khaira exercised … All he did was take up this UP youth Navreet’s case and support the farmers’ protest.” He added that the aim of the raid was to damage Khaira’s credibility. “Even if few years or months from now, they say that nothing has been found against him, the damage is already done in the public eye and that was the whole idea.” 

At Khaira’s native village Ramgarh, in the Jalandhar district, Kulbir Singh Khaira, the former sarpanch, told us, close to twenty-five vehicles had arrived. Kulbir Singh said that the ED did not take in any private witnesses before searching the MLA’s village home.

Kanwar Sandhu, a member of the AAP and an MLA from the state’s Kharar constituency, mentioned the raid in the Punjab state assembly today. “The ED raid on former LOP Sukhpal Khaira raises many questions. Since law and order is a state subject, was state govt. taken into confidence? Why raid on a member when Vidhan Sabha is in session?” he told us. “Also since he”—Khaira—“had only raised issue of police excesses and human rights violations during farmers agitation, the raid raises suspicion that it may have been done to silence him and to penalise him.” Sandhu said that “such raids strike at root of federal structure of our constitution.”

In November 2020, Khaira had accused the BJP of “hatred and ill-will” towards Punjab, referring to the centre’s decision to stop the movement of all freight trains to the state. The decision had followed a rail blockade by protesting farmers, despite an announcement they would halt the protest to allow the transport of essential commodities. This January, Khaira said the BJP was “unleashing political terrorism upon all those agitating peacefully,” in the wake of cases under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act registered against the farmers.

According to Bains, though the government is targeting all supporters of the farmers’ movement, Khaira stood out because “went even further in taking up the case of Navreet.”  He continued, “While the government is attributing it a road accident, he”—Navreet— “died of a gunshot. It would be a major embarrassment to the government and thus even the journalists who reported this have not been spared,” he said.




Below is an edited and condensed version of Khaira’s interview to The Caravan regarding Navreet Singh’s death, conducted in early February.

The Caravan: How do you believe Navreet died?
Sukhpal Singh Khaira: I believe it’s a murder and I believe it needs an investigation and a judicial probe. I have been demanding that. And the interesting part is that a judicial probe can be ordered by the Delhi government. The chief minister can order a judicial inquiry.

TC: You are one of a handful of politicians speaking about Navreet’s death.
SSK: Number one, his family members are demanding an inquiry. When any aggrieved person of the country seeks justice for their child, it is our duty of opposition leaders to raise and support their demand. [At the time the interview was conducted, the family had spoken to the media about the need for an inquiry into Navreet’s death. In mid February, Navreet’s grandfather, Hardeep Singh Dibdiba, filed a petition in the Delhi High Court, demanding an independent, transparent probe into the incident.]

Number two, everyone knows that whatever happened on 26 January—there were lots of incidents across Delhi that day, there are videos of brutal lathi charge, about someone being shot in Red Fort premises [referring to unconfirmed accounts of police firing within the fort], about police being hurt, and there are also viral videos on social media about Navreet Singh dying there. People standing right at the moment claimed that he died because of a shooting incident—police firing. I think that is enough of a ground for any reasonable person to demand justice for Navreet. This is my core issue.

What are we asking for? We’re only asking for a judicial inquiry. If we hold an inquiry, we’ll come to know if it was a death by accident or a death by firing. That postmortem report, it says that the brain matter is out. There is every possibility that he may have been shot first and then his tractor banged into the barricades and overturned.

TC: The Delhi Police has not formally released the CCTV video, but they are relying on the postmortem report to state that there is no mention of a bullet wound. Could you comment on this?
SSK: The postmortem does not specify that it is not a bullet wound either. [The report] described the head injury, they say the brain matter is coming out. In simple language, there is an entry point of the injury and an exit point of an injury. This can only be established by some impartial inquiry—there is nothing wrong in seeking that. And through an inquiry, if there’s a judicial inquiry about the incidents that occurred that day, we’ll come to know who actually were the culprits—what happened in the Red Fort and what happened to the police. It’s a very fair thing to demand, actually.

TC: Navreet’s grandfather, Hardeep Singh Dibdiba, has said that the postmortem was manipulated because the doctors were under pressure.
SSK: There is every possibility unfortunately, because the postmortem should have been done in Delhi itself. The postmortem was done in UP is governed by BJP, and the BJP is the core issue at the head of controversy in the farmers’ agitation. You know that everything is manipulated in India. All these postmortems and forensic reports are all doubtful. Their credibility is very low.

TC: If that is the case, how can you ensure that a judicial probe would also be independent?
SSK: That is the only institution that we still feel can do justice. People have no faith in CBI, no faith in police, no faith in ED, no faith in other institutions. Even the judiciary is under the scanner of the people, but still, where else to go? The only other option is to go to the International Court of Justice.

TC: Following the incident, a few people including The Caravan had tweeted updates about the death. Multiple FIRs were then filed against these persons and others in different states. Could you comment on this?
SSK: It is absolutely bad. They are gagging the voice. The BJP is intimidating people to the extent that they’re not even sparing independent media. It is a total black day for democracy. What is happening in India at this point in time, particularly in regard to the farmers’ agitation, is an undeclared emergency.

TC: As a politician, what will you do next?
SSK: Tomorrow [referring to 2 February] there is an all-party meeting convened by the chief minister of Punjab. I am going to put forth this issue of Navreet’s death very strongly there and demand that the chief minister lead a delegation to the president of India, with all elected representatives, to seek a judicial inquiry into Navreet’s killing, as well as into the pre-planned attacks by RSS-BJP gundas into the peaceful farmer agitation at the Kundli and Singhu borders. I’ve also written to Arvind Kejriwal, let’s see what this man does now. [On 2 February, Khaira raised the issue of Navreet’s death at the all-party meeting.]

TC: Are you hopeful that the other parties will join you after the all-party meeting?
SSK: Why should they not? Navreet did not go for any individual work. He was living in Australia, he had come to support the farmers’ agitation and died for the farmers’ cause. If they will not join, they will stand exposed. That they do not stand for the people of Punjab and their own youth and youngsters.

TC: In your opinion and interactions, has the tone of the conversation in Punjab among political parties changed following the 26 January rally?
SSK: They were a little negative post 26 January incidents and they came forward to condemn the issues unwarrantedly. The real issue was that we should have stood by our people, protected all the people arrested in the malicious, false FIRs. This is not the way that we do things.