The big bust: Punjab’s all-out war on drugs

  • Pawan Sharma, Hindustan Times, Chandigarh
  • Updated: Dec 31, 2014 09:06 IST

Just after 9am on May 20, the telephones of two dozen frontline Punjab police officers posted in the field began ringing. The order was terse: Pounce upon drug peddlers, smash their retail supply chains and spare none.

Simultaneously, in districts bordering Pakistan, crack teams of handpicked police personnel were tasked with smoking out cross-border heroin smugglers from their hideouts. Director general of police (DGP) Sumedh Singh Saini, the cop equally hated and hailed for his ruthless role while fighting terrorism during the strife-torn days, set a tight 10-day deadline to nab all known drug barons — whether active, lying low, on bail, or on the run.

That’s how Punjab’s multi-pronged surgical assault on “compulsive peddlers” and top heroin smugglers began.

Political trigger

The ‘drug clean-up’ operation was started with a vengeance after the Akalis paid a heavy political price in the April 30 Lok Sabha elections on the drug issue. A day before the police re-launched the crackdown stridently, chief minister Parkash Singh Badal had admitted in Jalandhar: “The Congress successfully turned the public perception against the Akalis on drugs, which was the biggest poll issue. This turned public anger more against us and we paid for it.”

The police probe into the drug racket, which has become a national issue with political parties playing vicious and petty politics, took a new spin after January 6 when arrested drug racket kingpin Jagdish Singh Bhola, an Arjuna awardee wrestler-turned-cop (who was dismissed later), told the media that cabinet minister Bikram Singh Majithia was the real kingpin. Since then, this loaded bombshell of Bhola has triggered a political earthquake across Punjab, the tremors of which continue to dominate the political and public discourse.

Overflowing jails

Within 10 days of the start of the crackdown, monitored at the political and highest police levels, jails began overflowing with peddlers-cum-addicts.

In a shrewdly-crafted strategy, the police kept the spotlight on arresting peddlers, while crack teams quietly kept ambushing cross-border heroin smugglers. Many known smugglers, however, gave the slip or “didn’t surrender”, though in two weeks, more than 50 top heroin smugglers were in the police net.

Says a top police officer: “The houses of ‘on the run’ heroin smugglers of Amritsar (rural) police district and Tarn Taran district were locked, their cattle were set free and luxury vehicles/tractors taken to police stations, while children and women of these drug dons were transported to houses of their relatives.” Even this strategy — illegal or otherwise — did not yield desired results.

Another little-known fact of this cat-and-mouse game between the heroin smugglers and the police is that hardcore dozen-odd cross-border smugglers “in the run-up to their arrests” sustained fractures either in ankle bones or wrist joints “while being chased by the police.”

‘Fear psychosis’

This chillingly bone-breaking strategy — which the police deny stoutly— was akin to the “killed in encounter” tactics the police had adopted during the days of terrorism. But this triggered a ‘fear psychosis’ among heroin smugglers, to whom the message, as a police officer puts it, was loud and clear: “surrender or...” This ruthlessness played a major role in crushing the network of heroin smugglers and breaking their transit lines and supply chains.

Another challenge was to break the police-peddler network. Additional director general of police (ADGP)-rank officers generated clinching evidence about “black sheep” in the police ranks. Finally, within the first two weeks of the crackdown on peddlers, 14 police personnel who were aiding and abetting drug peddling were dismissed from service. Departmental inquiries were initiated against 14 other cops.

In a fortnight, about 10,000 “compulsive peddlers” were also jailed. That the crackdown dried the supply line was evident when addicts started thronging de-addiction centres, with the availability of chitta (the addictive white powder) becoming scarce — taking the ill-prepared health department by surprise.

36% Punjab’s share of FIRs registered across India in 2012 under the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances (NDPS) Act.

63% Punjab’s share of total arrests made in the country in 2013 under the NDPS Act.

Their take

Punjab police have successfully dealt with bigger problems. Sumedh Singh Saini, Punjab DGP.

We have effectively dealt with this problem (the drug menace). We are extra vigilant. Ishwar Singh, director-cum-IG, State Narcotics Control Bureau.

There is a major change on the ground. The police pressure should continue. Dr JPS Bhatia, Amritsar-based psychiatrist.

The fact that people are coming to de-addiction centres indicates that intoxicants they were used to aren’t available in the market. Dr Gurpreet Singh Wander, DMCH, Ludhiana.

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