AAP, Sukhpal Singh Khaira and the Drugs Dilemma in Punjab

Allegations against Punjab AAP leader Khaira of being involved in the drug racket has left the party, that swears by "clean politics", angry and embarrassed.

Sukhpal Singh Khaira. Credit: Youtube

Chandigarh: In a state where a flourishing drug trade is its deepest scourge and internationally connected cartels operate in collusion with power centres, allegations of involvement in the business is the strongest weapon that can  be hurled at a Punjab politician.

Politicians from both the traditional parties, Congress and the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) have faced allegations of being involved in the drug trade. Until a few weeks ago, newbie Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), which is now the principal opposition party in the state assembly, had been at the forefront of the campaign against Bikram Singh Majithia – former minister in the Akali regime – now facing a court monitored probe by the Punjab police and the Enforcement Directorate (ED). But a sudden turn of events saw leader of the opposition Sukhpal Singh Khaira of the AAP embroiled in a swirl of allegations related to drugs, which in the last one month has left the party, that swears by “clean politics”, angry and embarrassed.

On October 30, a Fazilka court issued non bailable warrants against Khaira and five others and summoned them as additional accused in a 2015 cross-border heroin smuggling case, in which it convicted nine persons under the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act. One of those sentenced to 20 years imprisonment for cross-border heroin smuggling is Gurdev Singh, a former chairman of Market Committee Dhilwan, allegedly associated with Khaira. The court, which directed the prosecution to file a supplementary challan in the matter after the trial of the nine persons, was acting on an application of the additional public prosecutor which described Khaira as “the kingpin” of the drug racket. The proceedings in the trial court have now been stayed by the Supreme Court, which acted on a petition by Khaira, who contended that he could not be summoned as an additional accused after completion of the trial.

But the episode has resulted in a bruising battle between the AAP and its rival parties in which the judiciary has not been spared either. The matter dates back to 2015 when Khaira was in the Congress. Among those summoned by the Fazilka court were Khaira’s personal security officer Joga Singh and his personal assistant. Khaira is alleged to have been touch with drug smuggler Gurdev Singh through Joga Singh’s mobile phone. It is alleged that Khaira spoke to him 65 times between February 27, 2015 and March 8, 2015, the last call being one day before Gurdev Singh’s arrest.  Khaira claimed that he was innocent and that he was being targeted by the ruling Congress because he was exposing their misdeeds and scams in recent months.

Though the Supreme Court’s stay order has come as a major relief to Khaira, he faced flak from both rival political parties as well as from within the AAP, with some members wanting him to resign from his position as leader of opposition to uphold the principles of the AAP. Oddly, as newspaper headlines in Punjab continue to be dominated by the Khaira episode, the Delhi leadership of the AAP has maintained an intriguing silence. It is no secret that Khaira and some of his associate legislators do not see eye to eye with Delhi.

Khaira knows well that a drug taint in Punjab is serious and though leaders like Majitha have brazened it out in the past, no AAP leader can hope to survive it. Which is why before he went to the Supreme Court, Khaira approached the high court with the same request, but it was partially accepted. The court stayed the warrants issued for Khaira but not the trial against him.

Also read: Akali Leader Bikram Singh Majithia Under Fresh Scrutiny for Alleged Role in Punjab Drug Racket

Then, on November 27, a day before the winter session of the Punjab assembly began, AAP ally the Lok Insaf Party (LIP) released a sensational 17 minute recording in which a former deputy advocate general Amit Chaudhary is purportedly telling a former Punjab Civil Service officer T.K. Goel that Rs 35 lakh had been paid to a judge to ensure that Khaira’s review petition in the high court was dismissed.

LIP leaders Simarjit Singh and Balwinder Singh Bains accompanied by Khaira went to town with the tape, submitting a memorandum to Punjab governor V.P. Singh Badnore and the chief justice of the Punjab and Haryana high court to take suo motu action. Khaira alleged that SAD leaders Sukhbir Singh Badal and Bikram Singh Majithia and Congress minister Rana Gurjit Singh had hatched a conspiracy to malign his name. Incidentally Khaira carries the political DNA of both the SAD and the Congress. His father Sukhjinder Singh was a minister in two Akali governments in the 1970s (in Badal government) and in 80s in the Barnala government. He himself had been a Congressman from 1997 till December 2015 when he joined the AAP.

The Captain Amarinder Singh government’s response to ‘judgegate’ was to pass a resolution in the state assembly condemning the allegations against a judge and urged the high court to take suo motu notice of the “scandalous allegations against a judge”.  Last heard, Khaira was using abusive language against the chief minister.

Many leaders from the Congress and the AAP are decidedly uneasy with the ensuing drama, not to mention a thoroughly disgusted populace who had expected its politicians to deliver them from the rampant drug trade. A section of the ruling Congress is asking the most relevant question – why is the chief minister going after Khaira, but soft-pedalling the matter of Majithia’s alleged involvement in drug rackets? Most legislators were kept in the dark about the surprise resolution moved in the assembly. As for the AAP, though most of its 20 MLAs have come around to supporting Khaira now, the party rank and file is still in shock.

Chander Suta Dogra is a journalist of two decades standing. She is now a member of the AAP but the views in this piece should not be taken as the views of the party.