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‘Fight drugs together, it’s attack on Punjab’

Shiromani Akali Dal chief Sukhbir Singh Badal calls for de-politicising the drugs and sacrilege issues. He and his wife-chief strategist Harsimrat Kaur Badal sat down with Executive Editor for their first joint interview at their opulent forest resort, Sukhvilas, in New Chandigarh on Thursday

punjab Updated: Jul 07, 2018 20:11 IST
Ramesh Vinayak
Ramesh Vinayak
Hindustan Times, Chandigarh
Fight drugs,attack,Punjab
SAD president Sukhbir Singh Badal with wife and Union minister Harsimrat Kaur Badal during the interview. (Anil Dayal/HT)

Nothing consumes – and charges up – Punjab politics more than the divisive issue of narcotics that has dramatically sprung back to the centre stage after a spate of drug deaths across the state. Even as the Captain Amarinder Singh-led government scrambles for damage control, Shiromani Akali Dal chief Sukhbir Singh Badal has called for de-politicising the drugs and sacrilege issues – a carefully-crafted gambit to take the high moral ground and live down the twin issues that had spelt electoral nemesis for his party and still continue to haunt it. On Thursday, Sukhbir and his wife-chief strategist Harsimrat Kaur Badal sat down with Executive Editor for their first joint interview at their opulent forest resort, Sukhvilas, in New Chandigarh.

Excerpts:

How do you look at the drug issue resonating in Punjab?

Harsimrat: It’s sad when you think of a family that has lost a youngster to drugs. It is not the family’s responsibility alone. In Amritsar, parents are scared to send their children to school because they are being enticed towards drugs. The problem has reached epic proportions. The government has failed in the battle against drugs. The Special Task Force (STF) is working more out of personal vendetta. Never before has Punjab seen 25 drug deaths in 10 days. It’s time everybody comes together. We have to rise above politics.

Sukhbir: Nobody should play politics on this issue. Neither a blame game nor fixing a politician or an officer will solve the problem. We have to fight this jointly. As head of the government, Captain Amarinder (Singh) should take everyone into confidence. It should be a joint fight irrespective of political affiliations. It (the drug menace) is an attack on the state.

But the drug issue is also seen as the legacy of the last SAD-BJP rule?

Sukhbir: As the frontline state, Punjab is facing the brunt of drug smuggling from Pakistan and Afghanistan. In power, we fought this problem tooth and nail.

Harsimrat: We kept it under control. Nakel payee hoi see (It was reined in).

Sukhbir: That time everybody was talking about drugs because they wanted to make it a political issue. In our 10 years at the helm, the Congress, the Aam Aadmi Party and the national media declared Punjab as the drug capital even though we were as good or as bad as any other part of the country.

Your government was accused of patronising the drug mafia?

Our opponents and the media kept harping on the issue. We were falsely accused (of patronising drugs) because they wanted to make it a political issue and bring us down. They couldn’t match our narrative on development. So they tarnished us for drugs and sacrilege, two things the Shiromani Akali Dal can never even think of doing. ‘Ek jooth sau baar bolo taan lok sach manan lag jaande ne (If a lie is repeated a hundred times, people start believing it).’ It was ingrained in the country’s mind that Punjabis are drug addicts. Even as the state’s home minister, I couldn’t find a politician, whether Akali, Congressman or Communist, pushing drugs. No sensible politician will ever promote narcotics. Now that the Capt government has been in chair for a year and a half, has the STF caught any Akali for drugs? It’s time to look at facts rather than running down each other.

How serious is the issue on the ground?

Harsimrat: There’s no doubt that in the last year and a half, drugs have increased manifold and it is now freely available. Before Captain saab took over, there was a government, there was a CM and a deputy CM. Now, you have none. I haven’t seen a more non-serious chief minister who doesn’t go to office and cannot be approached by his own party leaders. When 25 youth have died, he should have been to the victims’ families to find out who sold drugs to them. I wouldn’t call it a working government; which is why drugs are flowing in. At the end of its five years, the Congress may actually make 70% of Punjab’s youth ‘nashedi (addicts)’ if not kill them altogether.

While in power you consistently called Punjab’s drug problem exaggerated and an attempt to defame Punjabis.

Sukhbir: I stick to that. Narcotics are available everywhere. Goa, Delhi and Mumbai are drug capitals. In Rajasthan, you go to somebody’s house and opium is served in place of ‘kaju-badaam (dry fruits)’. But nobody talks about it. So many people have died of drugs in other states, but nobody mentions it. I’m not saying there is no drug problem in Punjab, but the way it has been put on the top of our heads is that all the country’s drugs are here. That’s not a fact.

Harsimrat (interjects): But you have to admit that in the last one year, drugs have increased. Availability is much more than before. Look how police officials are accusing each of drug connections. It’s a serious thing like a nuclear bomb that has exploded and is spreading and killing. You have to be serious about containing it. But is this government serious?

So, aren’t you now defaming Punjab?

Harsimrat: We are not. That’s why we have said the time has come to rise above politics.

Sukhbir: We are not accusing our opponents. It is not that Captain is selling drugs. All parties, religious leaders and civil society should be called in to fight the problem together. If you leave it to the government alone, it won’t work. The authorities can only catch peddlers. It has to be mass movement.

Knowing that drugs is a divisive issue, is a political consensus possible?

Sukhbir: The Shiromani Akali Dal is ready for that.

Harsimrat: Where is the option? The Amarinder government does not have a roadmap. You may call it helping this government but I call it helping ourselves. If the government doesn’t take the lead, we as people will have to. You have to safeguard your kids. People at the helm are not able to do it because for them drugs was just a political game to come to power. You now have to rise to the occasion.

Would you appeal to Akal Takht to endorse your call for a joint fight against drugs?

Sukhbir: I will love to do that. But it is not only Akal Takht. All religious heads and political leaders should come on one platform. If we are united, we will win. If we fight each other to score brownie points, we will lose the battle.

Harsimrat: Terrorism of the ’80s and ’90s ended because people stood up against it. We need a similar resolve. It’s narco-terrorism taking place in Punjab.

Your call for fighting against drugs by rising above politics has found no takers so far

Sukhbir: This battle can only be won by fighting it jointly otherwise Punjab will be the casualty. Those in the driver’s seat should take the lead. We will support it.

Is death penalty for the first conviction in a drug case a solution?

Harsimrat: The Captain government is using this more as a googly to deflect its failure. Unless the conviction rate goes up, death penalty will not be a deterrent. There is already a provision in the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances (NDPS) Act for death sentence, but the conviction rate is abysmally poor.

You battled the drug charges on the personal front? What lessons did you learn?

Harsimrat: My family was targeted. My brother…. One thing I learnt was the depth to which the opposition can sink to defame a family and a party and even ragdo (defame) your own state and youth. That’s where the difference between the Akalis and the Congress and AAP lies. Today, we are in the same boat. We can point the same finger at them and do the tit for tat. But, we will not. Rather the Akali Dal and its president are exhorting others to rise to the occasion and fight the problem together.

The Akali Dal’s political fortunes haven’t seen a turnaround since its defeat in the 2017 assembly polls

Sukhbir: Byelections are not the real test of fortunes. But people in the last year and a half have got an opportunity to compare our government with the present one. There is no government today. One of the reasons why the drug issue has come up is that there is no command and control. Look at the police. They are divided. The DGP has control over certain areas, while the STF chief calls the shots in others.

Harsimrat: They are already undermining each other. In one force, you have two commanders and both are fighting with each other.

But this government cracked the cases of sacrilege and targeted killings which you failed to do

Sukhbir: The special investigation teams (SITs) that solved these cases were set up by us. Much of the ground work was done before Captain came to power. Our opponents made a political issue out of the sacrilege cases. But for us, it’s not politics. Even now desecrations have happened in Ropar and Pathankot. We could have played the same game that the Congress had. But I believe no one should play politics with drugs and sacrilege. One is a matter of the state’s future, the other of faith.

Captain outsmarted you on GST waiver on langar at Golden Temple and relief to Jodhpur detainees

Sukhbir: He has never outsmarted us because he doesn’t have the capability to do so. The CM announced waiver on the state’s GST share for Golden Temple six months ago, no notification has come out yet. What the Narendra Modi government has done on GST refund for religious places is historic. Also, Who put the Jodhpur detainees in jail in the first instance? It was the Congress government. Amarinder woke up after the Akalis met Union home minister Rajnath Singh. Such lip service and tokenism won’t help.

Six months ago, you promised a bill in Parliament to amend Article 25 of the Constitution to recognise Sikhs as a separate religious group. Any progress?

Sukhbir: We are working on that. An expert committee is looking into legal aspects. We’ve met at the top level.

Will this happen during the Modi government?

Harsimrat: If the Congress lets Parliament work.

First Published: Jul 07, 2018 09:34 IST