In his January 2017 cover story, Under a Cloud, Hartosh Singh Bal reported on the failure of the Shiromani Akali Dal regime in curbing the several crises that face Punjab, which heads to polls on 4 February. Bal writes that the Badal government's continual refusal to acknowledge the drug-addiction crisis plaguing the state has led to a strong sense of disillusionment among the voters. In the following excerpt, he recounts the efforts of Jagtar Singh, a resident of Bhikhiwind, to curtail his son's addiction to chitta, sold as a white powder.
State Highway 21 heads south-west from Amritsar through rural Punjab, to the town of Bhikhiwind, and then onward to Khemkaran. In late November, much of the paddy crop had been harvested, but the burnt stubble of it, whose smoke had choked Delhi just a few days earlier was still visible in some fields. Along the highway in Bhikhiwind, winding bank queues threatened to spill over and block traffic—the after-effects of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recently announced demonetisation measure.
The district headquarters of Tarn Taran lay to the west, and Khemkaran further south, adjacent to the India-Pakistan border. In 1965, a thousand Indian and Pakistani tanks clashed on the outskirts of Khemkaran, in the biggest tank battle to occur between the Second World War and the Gulf War. The town’s location ensures that it will always be vulnerable in any skirmish on the international border.
This region has been more or less abandoned by the government. It suffers from economic underdevelopment and educational backwardness—the district has a literacy rate of 69 percent, well below the national average of 74 percent. The district’s lack of progress is also apparent from the high number of honour killings reported here. During the years of militancy in Punjab, in the 1980s and 1990s, Tarn Taran, considered the heartland of Sikhism, was often termed the Republic of Khalistan, and was known to be a place where the writ of Indian law barely ran. Its current reputation, however, owes more to the 2016 Bollywood film Udta Punjab, which depicted it as a drug haven.
Jagtar Singh, a 47-year-old truck driver, was waiting for me outside his home on the outskirts of Bhikhiwind. He led me past tethered buffaloes to a courtyard behind his house, and we sat on charpoys that had been pulled out for us. Above us, a parapet encircling the terrace came to a jagged halt where it had been broken down. Jagtar explained, “We’ve just sold the house, and we will be moving to a new house on the three acres of land we’ve bought from the sale. We’re tearing the bricks down.”