If the ruling Punjab Congress is embarrassed about its failure to implement any of its poll promises, it is the strange reluctance of its chief minister, Captain Amarinder Singh, to take concrete action against top Akali leader and former minister Bikram Singh Majithia for his alleged involvement in Punjab’s infamous international drug racket that should top the list of embarrassments. This is despite the fact that more than half of Congress’s 77 legislators wrote to the chief minister earlier this year, asking for a probe into Majithia’s role. The very vocal cabinet minister Navjot Singh Sidhu, who publicly pressurises the chief minister on Majithia, has reportedly said that he will put the latter behind bars if he is given the home portfolio for even two days.
It was eventually the Punjab and Haryana high court, acting on the petition of a bunch of public spirited lawyers, that, on Tuesday, directed the special task force (STF) constituted by the Punjab government to probe Majithia’s alleged involvement and coordinate with the Enforcement Directorate (whose investigation first unearthed Majithia’s name in 2014-15) to get to the bottom of the matter.
The court has specifically asked the STF to “proceed on the basis of information” contained in a “brief note” prepared by Niranjan Singh, deputy director of the ED, in 2015 after examining Majithia in December 2014. Strangely, the STF formed by the Amarinder government to combat drug trafficking in the state soon after coming to power, has not investigated Majithia’s role. And neither has the ED moved forward on the matter after 2015. The Lawyers for Human Rights International (LHRI) had moved an application before the court seeking directions to the Punjab STF to probe Majithia’s role. They also said that the ED should submit a report on what action it has taken.
The alleged involvement of politicians in Punjab’s infamous drug trade, which has ruined the lives of thousands of Punjabis, mainly the youth, has in recent years become a hot electoral issue – but not one politician has been prosecuted on drug charges so far. A couple of top Akali leaders including Majithia have been summoned by the ED for questioning. The Congress and the Aam Aadmi Party had made the arrest of Majithia a political issue during the February assembly election, but within days of the Congress forming the government, Amarinder made it clear that he will not pursue “vendetta politics”, interpreted by most, including his own party people, to mean that his government will not take any action against the acts of omission by ministers of the previous Akali government.
During Tuesday’s hearing, senior lawyer Anupam Gupta, who is the counsel for Niranjan, voiced a widely-held view when he said, “There appears to be a larger political understanding between the state government and the Centre as far as Majithia is concerned… He is not innocent and his role has to be probed carefully and assiduously.”
The “understanding” that Gupta was referring to is an alleged quid pro quo of sorts between the Akalis-BJP and Amarinder in particular, wherein the former, during the fag end of its rule, absolved Amarinder of charges in the Amritsar Improvement Trust land scam registered in 2008. Last October, just three months before the assembly elections, the Punjab Vigilance Bureau (VB) filed a cancellation report of the case in the court citing lack of evidence, which came as a huge relief to Amarinder.
AAP had immediately described the development as evidence of a “collusion between the Badals and Amarinder Singh” to prevent the party from coming to power as both parties feared that “if the AAP came to power it would put corrupt leaders of both parties behind bars”. The clean chit by the VB at that juncture had certainly strengthened Amarinder’s claim to chief ministership, the Congress party being undecided over his candidature until then. Significantly, the Mohali special court rejected the VB’s cancellation report in August this year, prompting the AAP to demand that the matter be handed over to the CBI to ensure a free and fair trial.
If a tactical collusion is indeed the reason behind Amarinder’s reluctance to follow-up on allegations against Majithia, his own party is decidedly upset over it. In August, 40 Congress legislators wrote a letter to Amarinder, demanding action against Majithia. According to the Indian Express, the letter contained clippings of old news items in which Amarinder had accused Majithia of ruining a generation of youth with drugs. It also contained statements given by three accused in the case to the ED, which have references to Majithia’s alleged role in the drug trade. The chief minister has consistently maintained that “action cannot be taken against Majithia without evidence”.
But the leader of the campaign against Majithia within the Congress, Dera Baba Nanak legislator Sukhjinder Singh Randhawa, does not buy this. He has reportedly said, “We know that a probe could be ordered against Majithia and handed over to the STF. Why is the STF not given enough powers to handle a probe like this?” Almost echoing the opposition charge, he went on to point out, “When a CBI probe was being sought against Majithia, Captain sahib had said that the Punjab police was capable of handling the case and the CBI would delay the probe unnecessarily. He should now stand by his words and get the Punjab police to probe.” In January 2014, when Majithia’s name had first come up in the drugs matter, Amarinder had gone against his Congress party to oppose a CBI probe.
His senior ministerial colleague, the flamboyant and popular Navjot Singh Sidhu, has never hidden his displeasure at the lack of action against Majithia. At a gathering called by over 50 legislators who want the chief minister to act, he said, “It’s a joint forum of over 50 MLAs who want to convey people’s voice to Captain saab, who is our undisputed leader and supreme. It is not an offence. Majithia must face action for his wrongdoings in the past ten years. We ought to live up to people’s expectations.”
Background to the case
Majithia, a high-profile minister in the Akali government, is Union minister Harsimrat Kaur Badal’s brother and known for his aggressive politics. Niranjan had prepared a note submitted to the high court in 2015, after examining Majithia in December 2014. The ED had summoned Majithia after three accused drug smugglers – Jagdish Singh Chahal, Jagdish Bhola and Manjinder Singh Aulakh – had in 2014-15 testified that the he had been providing official vehicles, gunmen and protection to international drug mafia active in Punjab. Just 20 days after Niranjan summoned Majithia for questioning, he was transferred out. The transfer was subsequently stayed by the Punjab and Haryana high court and then revoked by the Centre ten months later. In March 2016, AAP leader Ashish Khetan released six statements of these drug smugglers recorded on different dates by the ED to stress that crores of cash was generated through drug smuggling cartels linked to Majithia. Khetan is since battling a defamation case filed against him by Majithia.
In his statement recorded on December 12, 2015, Aulakh, charged under Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances and Prevention of Money Laundering Acts, said that Majithia had complete knowledge of drug businesses being carried out. Another alleged smuggler, Jagdish Singh Chahal, linked Majithia with three Canada-based smugglers of Indian origin, who are now wanted by the ED and the Punjab police.
Since March 2014, the ED filed four chargesheets against 50-odd drug smugglers but the sudden transfer of Niranjan Singh and subsequent stay granted by the high court served to substantiate allegations that the ED is under pressure not to charge Majithia and soft pedal the probe.
Niranjan’s counsel Gupta has told the court that despite pressures his client has “stood his ground” and will need to examine Majithia for a second time to ascertain its “exact nature and magnitude.”
This, however is not the last word on the alleged involvement of Punjab politicians in the state’s flourishing drug trade.
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.