Much before Pahlaj Nihalani stepped in to butcher the Anurag Kashyap-produced Udta Punjab with 89 cuts, including all references to Punjab, its trailer and edgy songs had created an expectant buzz in the state. The heady Chitta ve, a song about the white powder that has destroyed thousands of Punjabi households, is on every youngster’s playlist. More than that, there was a sense of authenticity about the way director Abhishek Chaubey has approached his job of depicting the hopelessness in the heroin-addled countryside, backed with meticulous research. But new-age cinema’s allegiance to realism has attracted an unexpected enemy—politics.
To say drugs and politics go hand in hand in Punjab is an understatement. It dominates the social and political discourse and with assembly elections due in a few months, the ruling Akali Dal-BJP combine is showing signs of nervousness with the increasingly sharp attacks over its alleged role in the spread of drugs during its nine-year reign. For the better part of the last two years, the Akalis have spent their energies in shielding the powerful state revenue minister Bikram Singh Majithia—brother-in-law of deputy chief minister Sukhbir Badal—from an Enforcement Directorate probe into his alleged involvement in the drug business. Three arrested drug smugglers had in their statements before the ED claimed Majithia provided the cover and shelter for drug cartels to operate in the state. The smugglers, Jagdish Bhola, Maninderjit Aulakh (a one-time Akali worker from Amritsar) and Jagjit Chahal, who ran a chemical factory that manufactured the popular party drug ‘ice’, told the ED that Majithia allowed them to use his official vehicle and gunmen for drug smuggling. Despite this, Majithia’s name was neither recorded, nor was he made an accused. Worse, Niranjan Singh, an upright officer in the ED’s Jalandhar office who dared to summon Majithia for questioning, was suddenly transferred out on the ground that investigation in the case was almost over. The doughty officer’s transfer was stayed only after he moved the Punjab and Haryana High Court and last August informed the court that the investigation is far from over.
Niranjan Singh’s arguments created a storm when he named Majithia before the court as the only reason for his sudden transfer. His contention made sense too: he had summoned and examined Majithia, and the government feared that if he stayed in Punjab, Majithia could be summoned again. The court stayed his transfer. The entire drama was played out before the people of Punjab and, since then, popular opinion has anointed Majithia as the kingpin of the drug trade. Chief minister Parkash Singh Badal, who removed another minister from his cabinet when his son was questioned by the ED in the same case, refuses to touch Majithia. His laboured reasoning of there not being sufficient evidence against Majithia is a sad joke on his own helplessness to tame his family members.
The entire episode has also brought out the perfect jugalbandi between the Akalis and the BJP. When the Akalis want something badly, the BJP obliges. Just as it has done now, by using a pliable censor board to rip through Udta Punjab to suit the political requirements of the Akalis. The complete silence of the Punjab unit of the BJP towards the controversy is also telling. In recent months, some of its own leaders too have been linked to the drug business and the saffron party is equally defensive on the issue.
For some time now, the Akali government has been arguing that everyone is out to defame Punjab by labelling it as a land of drug addicts. The refrain of its leaders in the media has always been: “We will not allow anyone to blacken the fair name of our state”. Nihalani gives it all away by using the same language to defend his cuts. He dutifully mouthed the words, “It paints all Punjabis in bad light”. The touchily excessive manner in which Udta Punjab was sliced up is indication enough of the lengths the ruling dispensation will go to suppress voices that rise against its misrule. For Punjabis, though, the Akali crackdown on criticism of its role in the spread of drugs in Punjab is not new.
Last month, Zee Punjabi, a popular news channel that reaches households across the state through the Fastway Cable network patronised by the Badals, was suddenly blanked out. Reason: state panchayat minister Sikandar Singh Maluka found himself at the receiving end of some intense polemic from the Aam Aadmi Party’s Himmat Singh Shergill on a prime-time discussion on drugs. Unable to respond to Shergill’s salvos on Majithia, the miffed minister yanked off his ear plugs, walked off the studio and told the producers that henceforth no one from the Akali Dal will participate in their debates if Shergill is invited. When the AAP was told of the minister’s stand, the party responded by saying it will not be dictated to on who to send for a debate. The next day, Zee Punjabi was removed from its allotted slot on Fastway. There were protests in Ludhiana, young Punjabis vented their anger on social media, but the government brazened through it all.
This extreme sensitivity on the drugs issue is largely the result of criticism from the AAP—the new kid on the block, aggressive, young and nimble on its feet. It is the only party that can give the Akalis a run for their money. Literally. Operating on a shoestring budget, the AAP has unleashed a series of innovative, low-cost programmes designed to reach out to every section of society. Worryingly for the Akalis, the centrepiece of the AAP campaign is its focus on drugs. Last month, senior leader Kumar Vishwas launched ‘Ek Nasha’, an anti-drugs campaign in Delhi and Punjab, with a haunting video that implores the proud Punjabi to leave ‘chitta’, or heroin. Its powerful visuals showing corrupt politicians accepting money, while cops round up only small-time peddlers and addicts, is a hit on social media with more than one crore hits.
Despite years of reporting on the issue, I was myself taken aback when—as part of the team of ‘Bolda Punjab’, a dialogue AAP has begun with the people of Punjab to get feedback on what should go into its election manifesto—widowed women, young girls and even the occasional boy got up to tell us stories of how their families were ruined by drugs. We asked them for solutions to problems and they just held the mike in their hands and cried.
A recent AIIMS study estimated that an alarming 1.2 per cent of Punjabis are addicted to opioids. This is double the national average and four times the global average. And 99 per cent of the addicts are males. Last month, when the government established a deaddiction centre in Amritsar for women, the opposition pilloried it for defaming Punjab’s women as drug addicts! And everyone knows setting up a deaddiction centre is a quick business opportunity for scores of educated addicts nowadays.
You can ban a film, cut it into pieces, even suppress the media, but no government can silence the voice of the ordinary person. Punjabis have begun to do that but the Akalis refuse to see the writing on the wall. ‘Drugs di maa di’ is the hopeful tagline of Udta Punjab. Any government sincere about its commitment to the people should have no hesitation with the spirit of that, if not the exact words. Sadly, eradicating the menace is not a priority for those who rule. Snipping it out of sight is. Can one blame the twitterati then when they tweet angrily, ‘Censor board di maa di’?
(Journalist-author Chander Suta Dogra is now a spokesperson for the Aam Aadmi Party in Punjab)
Its proximity to the drug highways trailing out from the 'Golden Crescent', combined with its cash-rich farm economy, have created a nightmarish epidemic of addiction in Punjab. The statistics can boggle the mind: as many as 66 per cent of its youth are estimated to have experienced medical or synthetic drugs. An AIIMS survey reckoned the number of opioid addicts to be 1.2 per cent of the total population, which is four times the global average.