Manish Luthra (28) of Jalandhar was chased and stabbed to death on Thursday. His crime: He had been opposing the sale of alcohol in his locality.
Luthra’s killing is fifth brutal murder in Punjab at the behest of the liquor mafia in the past 10 months.
From the killing of Dalit youth Bhim Tank (his arms and legs were chopped off) in Abohar in December last year, to dismemberment of 20-year-old Sukhchain Singh’s limbs in Mansa and his death on Monday, there is a common thread linking these crimes: the liquor mafia.
It is anybody’s guess that the mafia is patronised by licensed contractors and politicians, operating in connivance with police, even as multi-crore illicit liquor trade flourishes in Punjab.
Dynamics of parallel ‘policing system’
Private men are hired by licensed liquor contractors to keep tabs on liquor smuggling, which if goes unchecked, hits their profits.
While in some cases, contractors only employ informers who alert the police about smuggling activities, there are others who provide vehicles to the police besides assisting them in their operations. And there are many cases wherein contractors rope in criminals and drug addicts to confront those involved in smuggling of liquor and bootlegging.
The “liquor mafia”, as these men are loosely called, undertake raids on their own, checking marriage palaces and other places to ensure that smuggled liquor from outside their territory is not brought there. They use vehicles declare them “excise staff” conducting raids. Their vehicles declare them as ones helping excise staff in conducting raids.
Equipped with sharp-edged and automatic weapons, these groups also set up illegal nakas and intercept vehicles of suspicious persons, especially in villages, often leading to violent altercations. They also check passengers’ luggage in buses running within the state.
“We have been given liquor vend contracts for crores of rupees. We are running in losses due to sale of illegal liquor. We have no option but to groom such people since there is no respite from such activities,” said a liquor contractor, requesting not to be named.
Bootlegging on rise, small contractors sweat it out
Harish Kumar, a liquor contractor who runs a small vend in the Malwa region, said the illegal sale of liquor had multiplied over the past few years. “If a small liquor vend has less business and manages to sell 50 bottles out of its quota of 100 bottles, the remaining will be either sold at lower price or smuggled to other areas,” he said.
Small-time contractors maintain that the monopoly of liquor companies over the business encourages bootlegging. “Only 20 large liquor companies control more than 12,000 liquor vends in Punjab. In such situation, small contractors lose business and they tend to smuggle liquor to villages to make some money,” said a contractor, also requesting anonymity.
Deputy excise and taxation commissioner (Faridkot division), SJS Visla, said some groups of liquor smugglers have started providing liquor on the doorstep and that too at lower prices. “This is a new trend, particularly in Bathinda and Mansa districts,” he said.
Things have worsened with politicians entering the high-return liquor trade directly or through frontmen. The police have no option but to allow them to run the show. “The job of controlling smuggling is of the police and excise officials, not the mafia,” said Haridner Singh, a resident of Tarn Taran, who left the liquor trade.
We can do without them: Senior police officials
The police feel that they can work without contractors’ hires to check illegal liquor trade. Amritsar police commissioner Amar Singh Chahal said, “It is true that there are men who work for contractors but we don’t need them to ensure recoveries. They do give us information or share a source but if they indulge in violence we will never tolerate it.”
“Contractor’s men cannot conduct raids or beat up someone,” said Amritsar SSP (rural) HPS Khakh, admitting that they help the police in nabbing smugglers. But the ground reality is different from what these senior officials say.
“The police only register an FIR (first information report). Right from identifying those involved in illicit liquor trade, conducting raids, nabbing them and taking them to the police station is done by the contractors’ men. We allow it as it is the practice,” said a station house officer (SHO).
There are other problems too. “In many cases, the accused get on-the-spot bail and started indulging in the illegal business again,” said Pawan Garg, assistant excise and taxation commissioner.