reportage Politics

Under a Cloud

Punjab seeks an alternative after ten years under the Badal family

By HARTOSH SINGH BAL | 1 January 2017

IN EARLY NOVEMBER, the Punjab government issued double-spread advertisements in a number of major newspapers, announcing that the city of Amritsar had been made over “as part of Deputy Chief Minister Sukhbir Singh Badal’s dream project.” The advertisement claimed that the “Rs 210 crore endeavour has stunningly transformed the area around the iconic spots: the Town Hall, Jallianwala Bagh and Sri Harmandir Sahib”—referring, respectively, to a colonial-era administrative building, the walled public garden that was the site of a horrific massacre in 1919, and the central shrine of Sikhism, which includes the Golden Temple. “The once crowded corridor,” the advertisement continued, “is now a grandiosely designed ‘Heritage Walkway’ dotted with surreal aura statues of historical figures, architecturally refurbished buildings and giant LEDs live streaming kirtans from Sri Darbar Sahib”—the name Sikhs use for the temple complex.

A few days later, I drove from Delhi to Amritsar. Visitors now enter the city through an elaborate arched golden gate, and, if they are headed to the shrine, climb onto an overpass and travel on it for several kilometres, leaving the city’s choked traffic underneath. They then take an exit that leads directly to the third floor of a multi-level parking lot near the Harmandir Sahib complex. From here, stairs lead down to the renovated walkway. The new flyover allows visitors to skim over the chaotic mess they once had to wade through to reach the shrine. But the route and the complex at the end of it can leave one feeling that the shrine has been whisked away from Amritsar into some Disney fantasy.
In the government advertisement, a statement by the deputy chief minister explained the motivation for the “Heritage Walkway” project. “Once in a life-time, everyone gets an inspirational call from God,” he proclaimed. “In a flash, this reveals to us the purpose of our being born.” He himself had had such a moment, he recounted, one morning in Amritsar, as he “was walking barefoot near Sri Harmandir Sahib.”

The shrine, Sukbhir said, “stands like the Heart of God Himself beating for humanity.” But devotees who visited it were “struck and saddened by the painful contrast of the divine splendor of the sacred shrine with images of narrow lanes, unkempt and ill-maintained shops and buildings and chaotic surroundings.” Sukhbir, too, was weighed down by such thoughts as he “walked under the starlit sky early that morning. Then, suddenly the moment turned into an inspirational experience. I felt a voice directing me to accept ‘seva’ to transform and beautify the whole place.” Having received this directive, “With strength bestowed on me by Akal Purakh, the blessings of the great Guru Sahiban and the sangat in Guru’s own image I undertook this seva. The rest is history.”

Sukbhir effectively claimed he had received divine revelation—something no Sikhs other than the Gurus have claimed in the 500-year history of their religion. In contrast, when Maharaja Ranjit Singh, the nineteenth-century founder of the Sikh Empire, renovated the complex and gave the central temple its golden covering, he put an inscription on the entrance gate that reads simply, “The gracious Guru through his benevolence considering Sri Maharaj Singh Sahib as his loving follower and servant got this work executed by him.”

I strolled ahead on the “grandiosely designed” walkway, curious to see if the new constructions warranted the advertisement’s florid tone. I realised quickly that they did, and that the word “surreal” in the advertisement was not out of place. Gleaming Victorian streetlamps lit up renovated facades of red sandstone. At the centre of a square, on a marble pedestal, a statue of Ranjit Singh towered over everything around it, including another nearby statue, of BR Ambedkar clutching the constitution, striding over a replica of the parliament building in Delhi. One restored bank building was flanked by stately Roman columns, while, some metres ahead, a McDonald’s outlet sported the familiar plastic golden arches of the brand’s logo. A few hundred yards away stood the refurbished Jallianwala Bagh memorial, a tribute to the hundreds who had been murdered there on the orders of General Reginald Dyer. One installation comprised a flame-shaped marble cloud embossed with grimacing faces, with a hole in the centre in which stood a golden replica of a burning torch—an aesthetic horror, no doubt, but one that did little to evoke the horrors of colonial mass murder.

After a dazed day spent wandering through Sukhbir’s vision, I made my way to the city’s Guru Nanak Dev University to meet Balvinder Singh, a professor in the Guru Ram Das School of Planning, and an expert on Amritsar’s heritage and history, and the various attempts over recent decades to renovate the surroundings of the Golden Temple. I was unsure what to expect, having learnt that, in Punjab, the mention of Sukhbir’s name was often enough to silence any open criticism.

I drove past the open spaces of the sprawling university, dotted with brick buildings, to arrive at the school of planning, tucked away at the rear of the campus. The professor, a soft-spoken Sikh, was seated at his desk, reading through a preprint of a recent paper of his on Amritsar’s heritage. He had no hesitation in expressing his views on the renovations.

“The whole project is very artificial, from the ugly Rs 8-crore gate at the entry to the town to the sandstone facades constructed along the heritage corridor,” he said. “They should have taken inspiration from the old streets of the town, rather than using Jaipur sandstone. They should have been sensitive to the city. Old buildings have been demolished, and marble has been used thoughtlessly. The idea should have been to preserve, not cleanse. I say this not because Sukhbir is involved but because rationally, as a professional, I find the project is wrong.”

Then his voice dropped, and he spoke as a man of faith. “The spirit of a place, its identity, is important,” he said. “Walking along the corridor, I find the vibration of the sacred has disappeared. Dil nu chubda hai. (It hurts the heart.) The spirit of the place has been drained out.”

The professor could well have been speaking about all of Punjab over the Badals’ ten years in power. The family, led by Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal, heading an alliance of his Shiromani Akali Dal and the Bharatiya Janata Party, has treated the state as a personal fiefdom, to be used to boost its own business interests and profile. If the shrine considered Sikhism’s most sacred is now a showcase for Sukhbir’s extravagance, some of Punjab’s most valuable businesses are now entries in the extended family’s portfolio. Most damningly, perhaps, a key cabinet minister and family member whose name has appeared in investigations into Punjab’s illicit drug trade remains in power and favour, even as the state reels under a drug-addiction crisis. Just how much political damage these years of misgovernance have done to the Badals will be clear this January, when Punjab goes to polls to elect a new government.

STATE HIGHWAY 21 heads south-west from Amritsar through rural Punjab, to the town of Bhikhiwind, and then onward to Khemkaran. In late November, much of the paddy crop had been harvested, but the burnt stubble of it, whose smoke had choked Delhi just a few days earlier was still visible in some fields. Along the highway in Bhikhiwind, winding bank queues threatened to spill over and block traffic—the after-effects of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recently announced demonetisation measure.

The district headquarters of Tarn Taran lay to the west, and Khemkaran further south, adjacent to the India-Pakistan border. In 1965, a thousand Indian and Pakistani tanks clashed on the outskirts of Khemkaran, in the biggest tank battle to occur between the Second World War and the Gulf War. The town’s location ensures that it will always be vulnerable in any skirmish on the international border.

This region has been more or less abandoned by the government. It suffers from economic underdevelopment and educational backwardness—the district has a literacy rate of 69 percent, well below the national average of 74 percent. The district’s lack of progress is also apparent from the high number of honour killings reported here. During the years of militancy in Punjab, in the 1980s and 1990s, Tarn Taran, considered the heartland of Sikhism, was often termed the Republic of Khalistan, and was known to be a place where the writ of Indian law barely ran. Its current reputation, however, owes more to the 2016 Bollywood film Udta Punjab, which depicted it as a drug haven.

Jagtar Singh, a 47-year-old truck driver, was waiting for me outside his home on the outskirts of Bhikhiwind. He led me past tethered buffaloes to a courtyard behind his house, and we sat on charpoys that had been pulled out for us. Above us, a parapet encircling the terrace came to a jagged halt where it had been broken down. Jagtar explained, “We’ve just sold the house, and we will be moving to a new house on the three acres of land we’ve bought from the sale. We’re tearing the bricks down.”

“We had no choice,” he continued. “We’ve run out of money. Gabbar has stolen everything of value in the house.” Gabbar is the name Jagtar uses for his eldest son, Sukhwinder, who is around 22 years old, and who for nearly five years has been addicted to the drug chitta, sold as a white powder.

As Jagtar began talking, his wife came and stood by. “Are you sure you want to do this?” she asked Jagtar. “Are you sure nothing will happen to Gabbar because of it?’’ Her husband waved her away, saying, “I should have spoken about this long ago. We wouldn’t have got to this stage.” As Jagtar and I talked over the next few hours, our glasses were refilled every half hour or so with sweet, milky tea.

“For two or three years, he hid the addiction from us, the shame of it forcing him to keep it a secret,” Jagtar said. “But things started disappearing from the house. Once we found out, we tried all we could to stop him, but nothing helped. This is a small town, and the police do nothing to stop the peddlers. They say there aren’t any around, but you just have to leave Gabbar alone with anything of value and he’ll be back in half an hour with somechitta.”

After Jagtar found that there was apparently no way to stop Gabbar from indulging his addiction, he, in the rough-and-ready way of the region, with its easy cruelty, began to tie his son with rope to a bedpost in his house. “But he always found a way to free himself,” he said. “I finally took to tying him with chains to the trunk of a thick tree just outside the house.”

Some local journalists learnt of the situation, and photos of Gabbar in chains made it to the front pages of Punjabi and Hindi newspapers in September. Soon, the police came to the house. “I was more than happy to see them,” Jagtar said. “I told them to keep him in custody, as it would keep him away from the drugs. They told me they would get him admitted to a drug-treatment centre, but after a few days they released him and said it was up to me to do what I could. They couldn’t help.”

Soon after Gabbar came home, he sold off his ailing grandmother’s wedding ornaments. The shock of this killed her, Jagtar told me, describing the cost of her medical treatment as another factor that was forcing the family to move house. He turned to his wife to ask if Gabbar had returned home. He had gone to the town of Tarn Taran in the morning to get medicine from a de-addiction centre, and they had been expecting him home for some time. “I hope he is not lying around doped in some field,” Jagtar said. “We can’t afford another cremation in the family.”

He took out some recent newspaper clippings with photographs of his son tied to a tree, and showed them to me. Interspersed with these were other, older, clippings, including one whose Punjabi headline, on yellowing newsprint, announced the deaths of four militants in an encounter—among them was Jagtar’s brother. Jagtar’s father, Sohan, who had been sitting silently nearby, listening to his son talk, spoke up. “In 1990, my younger son, Jagtar’s brother, had just finished college,” he said. “He took the bus to go to the Golden Temple to offer his thanks for his examination results. We never saw him again. We were told the police had taken him off the bus, but we didn’t know where.”

Sohan continued: “Then someone told us he had been picked up by the Muktsar police. Four days later, when we located the right police station, the SHO”—station house officer—“asked me my son’s name. I can still recall that as he sat there for a while, he was chewing on his pencil. After a while he looked up at me and said, ‘Sardar Sahib, the time has passed.’ We had reached too late. My son had been shot dead a day earlier. A constable told me as we left that they had tied him to a tree and shot him. He died pleading for water.” The family consulted a local lawyer, who “told us we’d all be in trouble if we filed a case, so we let things be,” Sohan said. “Even so,” he added, “at the time they killed the young men, innocent or not, because it was meant to end militancy, and it did.” The deaths of young men from drug abuse now, he said, “are totally senseless.”
When I called the family some weeks later, they told me that Gabbar had returned home a few days after my visit.

IN JUNE THIS YEAR, the Punjab government released a series of advertisements featuring prominent hockey players from the state, ending with the punchline, in Punjabi: “Who says the youth of Punjab are addicts?” The advertisements were seen as a response to the adverse publicity generated by the film Udta Punjab. Set in Tarn Taran district, it tells a story of politicians and police conniving in the manufacture and smuggling of drugs.

Virsa Singh Valtoha, the Khemkaran MLA of the Akali Dal, claimed the film was part of a trend of defaming Punjab and its youth. Valtoha was once a member of the All India Sikh Students Federation, and was among the band of young men who were associated with the militant Sikh leader Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale in the early 1980s. His name came up in the context of several key incidents of violence during the period, but he was never charged. Like many Sikh leaders who were active during the years of militancy, he, too, went on to join the Akali Dal, which emerged from the early twentieth-century Akali movement to reform the country’s gurdwaras.

Valtoha’s name has often come up in connection with the drug trade, but no charges have ever been brought against him. In 2014, a former director-general of the Punjab Police, Shashi Kant, revealed that Valtoha was on a 2007 list he had prepared of 85 prominent politicians who patronised the drug trade. Kant, who estimated that Punjab’s annual illicit drug trade was worth Rs 60,000 crore, said he had submitted the list to Parkash Singh Badal, but that the government took no action on it.

In the face of official silence, if not outright connivance, the efforts to challenge the government’s narrative are led by men such as Mukhtiar Singh, a resident of the town of Patti who is employed as a linesman with the Punjab State Power Corporation Limited. In March this year, Mukhtiar’s 28-year-old son, Manjit, died of a drug overdose. “The government was saying there is no drug addiction in Punjab, don’t defame the state, and I felt our children were dying, we need to bring the truth out,” he told me in November. “People were themselves collaborating in the government’s charade. Ashamed to admit the truth, they would claim their sons had died of a heart attack or some other illness.”
Joined by a few others, Mukhtiar marched with his son’s body to the Patti town square. The body was covered with a shroud, on which was written a message to Narendra Modi. It read, roughly: “Lakhs of young Punjabis have died due to drug addiction. My son has also fallen victim to it. I am sending this memorandum to you via the administration, hoping that this will help save other youths of the state.” After a few hours of wrangling, the subdivisional magistrate of Patti agreed to accept the shroud as a memorandum. After this, Mukhtiar turned his bid to force the government to acknowledge the truth about addiction into a crusade, using the slogan kafan bol peya (the shroud has spoken).

When I met Mukhtiar, I was not sure what to expect. Given the gravity of the drug problem, there seemed to be an unnecessary, over-the-top theatricality to his approach. But I was also aware that to be an activist in a place like Tarn Taran, with little or no support and in the face of opposition from the government, required a persistence that verged on monomania. The theatricality that seemed out of place while reading news reports in Delhi did not feel so in Tarn Taran.

Mukhtiar spoke with a practised ease, and when I later watched YouTube videos and reports on his work, I realised that he had said much the same thing many times over. But in a place where a natural response to addiction is to shackle the addict to the nearest tree, it seemed that much of what he said needed to be said over and over again. “My son,” he told me, “grew addicted when he was in his teens, in 2004, during a period when I was away from home after my brother died in a road accident. It was another seven to eight years before I found out. In our society we miss so many warning signs. The son hides his addiction out of shame. The parents find excuses for his behaviour because they can’t believe it could happen to their son. Even when they find out, they pretend to the outside world that nothing has happened. The shame and secrecy continues even after the death of an addict, when they do not reveal the cause of death. This only helps the government.”

This year, Mukhtiar filed right-to-information applications seeking district-wise details of all those who had sought treatment at the state’s de-addiction centres in 2014 and 2015. According to the government’s responses, Tarn Taran district was the most severely affected by addiction. In 2014, more than 83,000 people sought treatment, while in 2015, more than 70,000 did the same—corresponding to about 7 and 6 percent, respectively, of the district’s population as per the 2011 census. One reply Mukhtiar received stated that the district had seen a little over 27,000 new patients in 2014, and a little over 20,000 new patients in 2015.

Mukhtiar told me he had gone around to meet every politician in the state who would give him time. (Soon after I returned to Delhi, he sent me pictures over WhatsApp of a meeting he had had with Arvind Kejriwal in Jalandhar on 26 November.) “When we met Badal,” Mukhtiar said, referring to the chief minister, “he told us to let the government know who is selling the drugs, and that the government would take action. In places such as Batala and Gurdaspur, we have taken out marches through town and released lists of drug peddlers with names, the villages they are from, their vehicle numbers and the ruling-party MLA they are connected to. They have not touched a single person. But neither have they contradicted our claims.”

IN THE 2008 PUNJABI Rustam-e-Hind, Jagdish Bhola was a cast as a wrestler who never compromised the integrity of his sport. He certainly had the build and experience for the role: among other victories, he had won a silver at the 1991 Asian Wrestling Championship. He was rewarded for his achievements with an Arjuna Award and a job with the Punjab Police.

As it turned out, Bhola’s commitment to police work was minimal. In 2002, he was suspended from the force for involvement in the drug trade. Soon after, drugs worth Rs 100 crore were seized from his residence in Mohali, following which he went on the run. On 11 November 2013, he—along with four associates—was finally arrested for his alleged role in a Rs 700-crore synthetic-drug racket. At the time of his arrest, Rs 20 crore’s worth of the drugs “ice,” ephedrine and pseudoephedrine were recovered from him and his associates. Ice is a highly purified form of methamphetamine, which can sell for as much as $1,000 a gram on streets in the West, while ephedrine and pseudoephedrine are precursors used in the manufacture of synthetic drugs.

Bhola told the police that the drugs had been supplied to him by a man named Jagjit Singh Chahal, the owner of two pharmaceutical firms in the town of Baddi in Himachal Pradesh. Chahal was arrested two days later from Amritsar. Based on his interrogation, raids were carried out at his firms. One hundred and ten kilograms of what the Punjab and Haryana High Court later referred to as an “intoxicant powder mixture,” along with 225 kilograms of pseudoephedrine, 75 kilograms of ephedrine and 125 kilograms of ice, were recovered from MBP Pharma, one of Chahal’s companies. A search at Montek Bio Pharma, also owned by him, yielded 165 kilograms of intoxicant powder, 250 grams of methamphetamine, 175 kilograms of pseudoephedrine and 8.5 kilograms of ice. The police claimed that while Chahal had the necessary licences to manufacture and sell legal drugs containing ephedrine and pseudoephedrine, he misused these substances to produce ice.

In October 2015, it became clear that the investigations had made very little progress. Disposing of a petition demanding a CBI inquiry into the case—filed by multiple petitioners, including Bhola’s father—the high court instead ordered the setting up of a supervisory team comprising senior officers of the Punjab Police. The court observed that “there has been an apparent lack of commitment, deliberate or otherwise, in securing impeachable or impeccable evidence of independent nature.” It added: “There is an unexplained silence on the efforts, if any, made after the year 2013-14, to nab the organized drug traffickers.”

The court’s observations echoed what people in Punjab commonly say about the police’s failure to follow through on the 2013 arrests. In the public’s perception, the investigations seemed to have tapered off after it became clear that Chahal and another of Bhola’s associates, Maninder Singh Aulakh (usually called Bittu), who was arrested on the same day as Chahal, named Bikram Singh Majithia, a minister in the state cabinet, as a player in the synthetic-drug trade. Majithia, the suave scion of one of Punjab’s most powerful families, is a brother-in-law of Sukhbir Singh Badal.

Bhola also came to the attention of the enforcement directorate, or ED, which sought to interrogate him in January 2014 in connection with a money-laundering case linked to the drug haul. The ED concluded that the drug racket that he was part of was worth Rs 6,000 crore, much more than the initial police estimates of R700 crore.

The statements that the people arrested made before the ED were key to its investigation. Many news reports have mentioned that Majithia’s name appears repeatedly in these statements. During my reporting, I accessed some of the agency’s documents, which contained transcriptions of these statements.

While reporting on investigations such as these, it is difficult to piece together a complete picture of a case. Journalists must rely on, and are limited by, the fragments that emerge over time from official investigations and documents. During my reporting, I accessed the statements that Aulakh and Bhola made to the ED, which had not been previously reported in the media. These clearly suggest that Majithia had facilitated connections between key players named by Bhola. The statements also suggest that Majithia was directly involved in transactions between them.

According to Bhola, two men, named Satpreet Singh (usually called Satta) and Parminder Singh (usually called Pindi) were closely involved in the trade. In his statement to the ED, Aulakh said that Satta was “introduced to me by Bikram Singh Majithia in the year 2007.” Majithia, Aulakh said, “told me that Satta was his friend who was residing in Canada. Mr Majithia also told me that Satta was coordinating his election campaign for MLA from Majitha constituency.” According to Aulakh, Majithia told him to help Satta “for whatever business of drugs (medicines) Satta wants to do.”

Aulakh also told the ED, “I was introduced to Parminder Singh Pindi by Satpreet Singh Satta on 25th Nov 2009 at the wedding reception of Bikram Singh Majithia at Chandigarh.” Satta then told Aulakh “that Pindi wants to import from India to Canada some pharmaceutical drugs and asked me to introduce someone dealing in these drugs.” Aulakh said he then “introduced Satta and Pindi to Jagjit Singh Chahal. I told him Satta was very close friend of Bikram Singh Majithia and Pindi was known to Satta, both were residents of Canada. Pindi had written name of some pharmaceutical drugs on a paper which was given to Jagjit Singh Chahal. I told Chahal they wanted to import these drugs to Canada, to which Chahal stated that he will consult his person technally deal with drugs [sic].”

Chahal’s chemist, Aulakh added, “told us that drugs wanted by Pindi were controlled drugs. Satta and Pindi wanted drugs containing Pseudoephedrine as far as I know because chemist of Chahal had told that these are controlled drugs.” Aulakh told the ED that Chahal owned two pharmaceutical companies that had licences to purchase pseudoephedrine —MBP Pharma and Montek Biopharma, the same two firms that were raided—and that as far as he knew, Chahal and the two non-resident Indians had “finalized there [sic] deal and the pharmaceutical drugs containing Pseudoephedrine had been supplied by Chahal to Satta and Pindi in Canada.”

Aulakh then went on to add a detail that seems to leave Majithia with little wriggle room to deny his connections to the people the police have linked to the illicit drug trade. “On being asked,” he said, “I state that there was a dispute between Satta and Pindi on one side and Chahal on other side on supply of pharmaceutical drugs containing Pseudoephedrine which was settled on the instructions of Bikram Singh Majithia.”

The ED took a detailed statement from Majithia, who was also the campaign manager for the BJP leader Arun Jaitley in his losing 2014 campaign for the Amritsar Lok Sabha constituency. But, according to a person with knowledge of the investigation, Majithia denied knowing Satta, and, after this, the agency did not probe further. There is, however, enough evidence of Satta’s closeness to Majithia. In fact, the ED specifically asked Aulakh if Satta had ever participated in any function with Bikram Singh Majithia, to which he responded in his statement, “Yes, I remember that in 2010 Sartpreet Singh Satta had participated in Punjab Government official function in Khalsa College, Amritsar.” Through Sarabjit Singh Verka, of the Punjab Human Rights Organisation, which has been key in unearthing several scams in the state and has compiled material on this case too, I was able to source a photograph showing Satta with Majithia at that very function.

Verka told me, “Both the Punjab Police and the Enforcement Directorate have shied away from investigating key facets of the case once Majithia’s name has come up.” Satta and Pindi, both of whom are in Canada, “clearly seem to be running a synthetic drug trade with international ramifications extending to Canada. Our information suggests they have close links to some Canadian politicians as well. Even simple investigative steps, such as checking their call phone records for contact with Majithia, have not been undertaken. A deliberate effort is being made to hush up the matter.” (Majithia did not respond to repeated requests for comment.)

The shape and effects of the illicit trade are difficult to map without more comprehensive investigative materials, spanning information from several continents. But it is clear that raw materials from Punjab are exported to synthetic-drug manufacturing hubs in other parts of the world. In November, the Chennai-based magazine Fountain Ink published a story on drugs from India finding their way across the globe. One seizure, in May, from a Libya-bound ship in the Greek port of Piraeus, yielded “26 million pills of Tramadol, an opioid painkiller presented in doses of 225 mg, way higher than standard prescriptions.” According to the story, “The illegal consignment, worth $13 million, was headed for markets across the Middle East.”

Tracing the consignment’s origin to India, the report noted that the “ship had started its journey in Jawaharlal Nehru Port in Navi Mumbai,” and that the “Tramadol was made in Amritsar by Royal International, a pharmaceutical company licensed to export and manufacture drugs.” It also observed that India’s rise as a major exporter of pharmaceutical drugs to West Asia “coincides with a period where it has also emerged as a hub for the smuggling of precursor chemicals such as ephedrine (used for making methamphetamine) to Africa.”

WHATEVER THE LEGAL EVALUATION of Majithia’s status in the case, there is little doubt about the effect that the case has had on the public’s perception of him. Driving across Punjab in November, I found that though the Akalis were pasting publicity material across the state ahead of the election, pictures of Sukhbir Singh Badal and his brother-in-law, once omnipresent, were now conspicuous by their absence.

Instead, from the vicinity of the Harmandir Sahib to deep in the Malwa region of southern Punjab, it was the 89-year-old Parkash Singh Badal who was alone being projected as the man who would lead the party. The reliance on Badal’s image was indicative of how, in succumbing to nepotism, the Badal family has squandered goodwill that the party had accumulated as a political organ of the Sikh religion, dedicated to communitarian ideals. With the public’s faith in the Akali Dal eroded, the party was forced to rely on the one man who was still, to some extent, associated with the party’s roots.

I first started reporting on Badal in 1998, soon after he became the chief minister of Punjab for the third time. In person, Badal, well over six feet tall, is unassuming and soft-spoken. He never loses his temper or raises his voice, and exercises humility in a state where leaders are usually defined by their swagger and braggadocio. According to a popular belief about Badal, after tying a perfect turban he pushes it askew to appear somewhat flawed. But this carefully crafted veneer of simplicity hides one of the most astute political brains in the country.

Badal first became the chief minister of Punjab in 1970, after which he oversaw the brutal but effective oppression of Naxalism in the state, a story that has never got the play it deserves—particularly given that the Akalis later claimed to be victims of the central government’s suppression while Punjab reeled under militancy. He then played an important role in the Akali stir against the Emergency, which was by far the most potent resistance to it mounted anywhere in the country. Badal built a strong support base during these years, allowing him to return as chief minister again in 1977. Through the subsequent years of militancy, he kept a low profile, attracting the ire of the extremists without becoming a target for their violence.

Other men in the party, such as Gurcharan Singh Tohra and Jagdev Singh Talwandi, seemed to exercise, at least in public, as much influence over the organisation during that period as Badal did. But Badal was always the key person in any backroom discussions between the party and the ruling establishment in Delhi. Once peace returned to the state, in the 1990s, he slowly outmanoeuvred other leaders. Tohra, his last major rival, was sidelined, and then expelled from the party in 1999. After that, for the first time in its long history, going back to 1920, the Akali Dal became the fiefdom of one person.

In a state that has seen much turmoil, Badal has been a calming presence, a moderate Sikh who helped the Akali Dal move past the image it was often associated with—of a separatist organisation. In the aftermath of militancy, his alliance with the BJP, beginning in the mid 1990s, ensured some sense of security among the large Hindu minority in the state. It also allowed the Akali Dal, in return for unstinting support for the BJP at the centre, to rule the state with virtually no interference from its ally.

It was this combination—of a party that was unchallenged even when running a government in alliance, and a leader unchallenged within the party—that allowed Sukhbir to emerge. Unlike his father, he had no experience in the cut and thrust of Akali politics. Power was handed to him, and he, in turn, handed it to men such as Bikram Singh Majithia.

Before they came into politics, Sukhbir and Majithia belonged to a category in jutt Sikh society best denoted by the term kaka, a colloquial word for boy. It is used for sons of rich landowners, boys who are usually students of elite boarding schools such as Lawrence or Doon, and who drive expensive sports cars or SUVs on the streets of Chandigarh. Most kakas have never held jobs, and will never need to. The kaka culture came into the Akali Dal with Sukhbir and Majithia, but never sat comfortably with the traditional culture of the party—and Sikhism itself—in which those who don’t earn their living through hard work are generally viewed with disdain.

This change has taken a toll on the party. In the last week of November, I met Jarnail, a third-generation Akali supporter, whose father was once an Akali MLA, and who asked me not to identify the region in Punjab he comes from. He recounted an instance when he was waiting at a circuit house, a kind of government guest house, to meet “Badal sahib,” as Parkash Singh Badal is often called. “We were late, but we were ushered in,” Jarnail said. “His car was already waiting and he had to leave, but tea was sent for. While talking to us, he asked about another colleague of my father’s. When he learnt the colleague had been held up but was on his way, Badal sahib waited another half an hour for him to arrive, spoke to him like he had spoken to us, asking after his family, his work, picking up some information on how the party was faring in the region.”

Sukhbir, he explained, is far less generous with his time. “Now I have often seen Sukhbir ensconced with local businessmen, while MLAs line up outside the circuit house,” he said. Rather than meet his party colleagues, Jarnail added, Sukbhir often leaves “without giving them a second glance.” One MLA “told me that he even leaves his PA behind when he goes to meet Sukhbir, because he wants to avoid having any witnesses to his repeated humiliation.”

As the party’s culture changed, the Badals also consolidated family control several of Punjab’s most lucrative industries. Chief among these was the liquor industry, which, by 2006, was almost entirely controlled by the tycoon Ponty Chadha. That year, the ruling Congress took back control from Chadha, ostensibly to gain greater control over revenue ahead of the 2007 election. This allowed new players, including Jarnail’s family, to secure licences and enter the industry.

But after winning the 2007 election, the Akalis once again sought to gain control over the business under a few big players connected to the party. “We had won the auction for some local liquor outlets, but soon after our party came to power, the police ended up raiding our operations,” Jarnail said. “They never found anything wrong, but I had to go all the way up to Badal sahib to plead my case. The message was clear. No one could run a business independently without making the necessary adjustments with the ruling family.” Their hopes for the liquor business dashed, the family had “returned to farming,” Jarnail said. “To try and do something else under them is to be permanently beholden, constantly humiliated. Badal sahib had kadar”—respect—“for his party workers, Sukhbir thinks he is running a business.”

While smaller players like Jarnail lost out, among the winners, unsurprisingly, was Majithia, whose family runs Saraya Industries, which has significant interests in liquor.

Other businesses in Punjab, too, were soon brought under entities connected to the Badals. Cable operators, including major players such as Siti Cable (owned by the media baron Subhash Chandra) and Hathway (owned by the Raheja family, which also owns Outlook magazine) were persuaded to sell their operations to Fastway Transmission Private Ltd. Unsurprisingly, again, the chain of ownership in the companies that control Fastway culminates in Sukhbir. Much the same has happened with transport, with most of the lucrative bus-transport business ending up with companies run or owned by the Orbit group, controlled by Sukhbir and his family.

Sukhbir did not only consolidate his control over businesses—he also established a firm grip over the state’s administration. In a system similar to one adopted by the

Communist Party of India(Marxist) while it ruled West Bengal, select members of the Akali Dal were appointed halka—region—in-charges, and given virtual control over local administrations. Appointments, such as of station-house officers and tehsildars, were made through these party officials. Law and order, too, depended on them, with the police rarely filing FIRs without their approval. “This also meant they were aware of every case, every issue involving an Akali worker,” Jarnail said. “The work was dependent on their nod, and often matters were kept pending till a person’s loyalty was completely secured.”

IN THE 2014 LOK SABHA ELECTIONS, Punjab, ground down under the Badals, often forced to side with the Congress for lack of an alternative, suddenly saw new hope in the Aam Aadmi Party. Though the AAP registered a disappointing performance nationally, winning no seats at all in any other states, it won four of Punjab’s 13 Lok Sabha seats. The upcoming state election, therefore, will serve as a referendum, not just on the Badals, but also on the AAP as a fledgling party that has set its sights on ruling the state.

The turbulence within the AAP at the national level, most notably the removal of the party’s senior members Prashant Bhushan and Yogendra Yadav, has also affected the organisation in Punjab. In the months after the Lok Sabha election, three of its MPs—Patiala’s Dharamvir Gandhi, a well-respected and admired figure, Fatehgarh’s Harinder Singh Khalsa and Faridkot’s Sadhu Singh, all of whom had close ties to Bhushan and Yadav—drifted away from the central organisation. (Ahead of the assembly election, Gandhi floated a new group that announced candidates of its own.) The fact that three of its four MPs in the state ceased to be closely aligned with the party should have served as a warning for the AAP, but it papered over the problem after registering a massive victory in the 2015 Delhi assembly election.

The euphoria of the Delhi victory, and the party’s persistent promise to fight corruption, drove the growth of the AAP in Punjab. But in the months that followed, the organisation eventually took on contours that are common to almost every regional party in India, coming to centre on a personality cult around one charismatic figure—that of Arvind Kejriwal. The problem with such an arrangement, as most regional parties have learnt, is that it damages a party’s ability to expand across states.

This became apparent in the AAP’s selection of its Punjab leader. There were some obvious claimants to the position. Among them was HS Phoolka, an indefatigable lawyer who has almost single-handedly kept alive the quest for justice for the victims of the 1984 anti-Sikh massacres, and who had come close to winning the Ludhiana Lok Sabha seat in 2014. Another strong contender was the comedian Bhagwant Mann, who is presently the MP from Sangrur. Mann would have been an obvious choice on the basis of his popularity, but the persistent, if so-far unsubstantiated, allegations that he has repeatedly appeared drunk in public scuttled his chances. Phoolka, then, who commands respect across the board, should have been an easy choice, but his ascent seems to have been thwarted by internal opposition from men such as Mann, and Kejriwal’s by-now evident wariness of anyone who is not completely subservient to him.

Instead, Kejriwal selected Sucha Singh Chhotepur, a man who seemed upright, but did not have a particularly strong public presence or a clearly articulated set of political beliefs—a pattern seen in the AAP chief’s party appointments in Delhi, too. Chhotepur, who has, over the years, fought Punjab assembly elections as an Akali, an independent and as a Congressman, set about building an organisation of volunteers, buoyed by the momentum of the Delhi win. The party’s central leadership in the capital began to focus closely on Punjab, seeing it as a potential site for another win. In a move that caused some consternation among the state leadership, Kejriwal appointed a young organiser named Durgesh Pathak to report back to him about the party’s affairs in Punjab.

According to a newspaper profile of him, Pathak hails from Gorakhpur and gave up his Indian Administrative Service ambitions to join the Anna Hazare movement, which eventually led to the formation of the AAP. The banner image of his Twitter account is a photograph of Che Guevara, leaning back, cigar in mouth, reading Goethe. His Twitter bio reads: “A simple man, who wants to live in a society where justice prevails….if not, I will fight for it till my end…” Pathak earned Kejriwal’s confidence by handling a part of his Lok Sabha campaign in Varanasi, and was then put in charge of 35 Delhi assembly constituencies in the party’s 2015 campaign. When Kejriwal checked in for a ten-day vipassana session in Dharamshala recently, Pathak was the only person to accompany him.

When I spoke to Pathak on the phone, he told me he had entered Punjab on Kejriwal’s direct instructions. “After the Delhi elections I had gone back home for a month and a half to take care of some personal business when Arvind called,” he said. “‘Our next target is Punjab,’ he told me. I went there to gather feedback on the party’s position in the state. Over the next 50 days, I spoke to some 9,000 volunteers, and went to more than 500 villages to prepare a detailed report. I found that there was no organisational setup, no monitoring of party activities, no campaign design and no command system. If we got these in place, we stood a good chance.”

The state unit was reorganised and 13 zonal coordinators, one for each Lok Sabha constituency, and 39 sector-level coordinators, were sent from Delhi to Punjab asa beginning towards building a robust and extensive organisation,” Pathak said. The party in Punjab has since been virtually run by its Delhi leaders, through a chain of command culminating in Pathak. But as he went about setting up a structure, he came into conflict with the local unit, led by Chhotepur.

When we spoke, however, Pathak denied that he had clashed with the state leadership, and claimed that his role was similar to that of the out-of-state observers that the Congress appoints to its state units. But many AAP leaders in Punjab began to feel that their party was even more centralised in Delhi than the Congress. The conflict turned ugly after allegations surfaced about Chhotepur taking money without accounting for it, and the party released a video as evidence that he had done so. He was sacked. Speaking to the Indian Express soon after, Chhotepur alleged that he had been set up because of divisions within the party’s state unit, and that the rift “started five months ago when I told Delhi that Durgesh was a power block. He was given absolute power.”

These events did more damage to the AAP in Punjab than anything that had preceded them. Volunteers who had come to the party with Chhotepur left en masse. And though many were replaced, the word they carried to the state’s people hurt the AAP, and gave it a reputation as a party that did not trust Punjabis to run its own state unit.

When I asked Pathak about this reputation, he dismissed it as a result of motivated propaganda. As for the question of a leader in the state, he said the party would take a call at the appropriate time. A few senior leaders of the AAP told me that they were constrained in making this appointment because the party lacked a Sikh face acceptable across Punjab. This explanation did not withstand scrutiny. If he had been projected well in advance, Phoolka could have credibly led the party through its campaign. Another possible candidate that the AAP proved unwilling to deal with was Manpreet Badal, Sukhbir’s cousin and a former finance minister in the Akali government, who had taken on the Badals on principle and parted ways with the family in 2010.

The party was similarly reluctant to negotiate with the former cricketer turned television personality and politician Navjot Sidhu after he left the BJP in September. Unable to reach an agreement directly with the AAP, Sidhu formed a front that included Pargat Singh, a former Indian hockey captain, and opened negotiations with both the AAP and the Congress—a move that cost him significant goodwill and made him appear like an opportunist. When I met Pargat Singh over dinner in Jalandhar while the negotiations were still underway, he told me, “The trouble with the AAP is that they want us”—Sidhu and him—“to trust them, and leave our future in their hands, while they will not trust us with anything. We have suggested that at least there should be a coordination committee to run the party in the state where we have a say. We have even told them you can even have a majority of your people from Delhi, but they just don’t seem to be listening.” The negotiations eventually broke down, and Sidhu and Pargat joined hands with the Congress.

The sentiment that the AAP in Punjab was being run from Delhi was something I heard echoed across the state, including by those in the running for election tickets. Among those who stated this sentiment was Major Singh, an old acquaintance of mine, whom I knew from the late 1990s, when we were journalists together in Jalandhar. Major had dabbled in Naxalism in the 1970s, and had gone on to become one of Punjab’s best-known journalists. He is personally acquainted with every major Punjabi politician, and has travelled to each part of the state many times over, accumulating a wealth of contacts in almost every large village. Major joined the AAP in June, a move announced with some fanfare at a press conference.

When I met Major at the Jalandhar Press Club, of which he is now president, he told me that he had joined the AAP on being assured that he would be given a ticket. He seemed sure that the party would deliver on its promise. Though I was sceptical even then, I did not voice my doubts. I was more interested in knowing whether the party had made use of Major’s extensive knowledge of the state. “No one has ever asked me for my assessment,” he told me. “The leaders from Delhi seem to think they know more about the state than we do. Everything is top-down, and the people they have placed on top don’t know Punjab.” Over the next few weeks, as the party announced its candidates for the election, Major realised that he was not on the list. When I spoke to him on the phone after this, he had much more to say about what was wrong with the AAP in Punjab—but perhaps what was most revealing was his earlier criticism, while he thought he was still in favour.

The AAP’s dependence on its Delhi leadership is not just a problem of public perception—it also has led to the party floundering in unfamiliar waters during the campaign. It was cornered at the time of the release of its youth manifesto in July, when the party superimposed its symbol, the broom, over a picture of the Golden Temple. Rivals projected this oversight as an insult to Sikhs. The party had to turn for help to Phoolka, who apologised and paid obeisance at the shrine. Kejriwal, too, did the same, some weeks later.

The AAP has since been careful to avoid touching on Sikh religious issues. When I asked Pathak about this, he said, “People will vote for us because of governance, to harness people’s anger against Badal. As far as we are concerned, political people should deal with politics, religious people should deal with religion.” But observers of the state’s politics know that this is a distinction that has little meaning in Punjab. From the dispute over the Sutlej-Yamuna link canal, or the SYL canal, to the symbolism of the “heritage walkway” outside the Golden Temple, the interplay of religion and politics is intrinsic to Punjab.

The Akalis and the Congress’s leader in the state, Amarinder Singh, know how to exploit this interplay. Ostensibly, the SYL canal issue is one of governance, and centres on Punjab’s opposition to a canal that would carry to Haryana a significant share of the river water that flows through Punjab. But the Sikh population in the state is predominantly rural, while the Hindu population is largely urban. As a result, the issue of water predominantly affects Sikhs. Thus, for several decades, right from the years of militancy up to the present, the Akalis have used water issues as a way to mobilise their supporters. This mobilisation is accompanied by symbolism and slogans that derive directly from Sikhism, including the ubiquitous cry of “jo bole so nihal, sat sri akal”—which roughly translates as “blessed is the person who says ‘god is the truth.’” Since the AAP views the SYL issue as merely one of governance, it cannot draw on the power of such symbolism. This was apparent at a 12 November event at Kapoori village to protest the canal’s planned construction, at which the party could gather only a scant crowd of a few hundred.

In this scenario, with people eager to unseat the government in power and a new party failing to live up to the hope people had vested in it, I found that some voters were, wearily, once again considering the Congress as an alternative. I stopped covering the party in Punjab on a daily basis at the turn of the millennium, but, more than 15 years later, the same faces still dot the organisation, and the same problems afflict it. Amarinder is older, but his intolerance of internal opposition, and his inability to get on with anyone within the party, is unchanged. He is surrounded by a coterie of media managers, who have been with him for decades, and earned him notoriety when he was chief minister by acting as informal power brokers. Yet, even though many of the Congress’s faults in Punjab have much to do with Amarinder personally, the people of the state are tolerant of his failings, as they are of Badal’s.

Amarinder is a kind of anti-Badal, and exudes arrogance rather than humility—more in keeping with the typical idea of a leader in Punjab. In 2004, after the Supreme Court asked the central government to construct the SYL canal, Amarinder, as chief minister, defied the Congress high command and convened an overnight session of the Punjab assembly to pass the Punjab Termination of Agreements Act, 2004, which abolished the state’s water-sharing agreements. The state then halted the canal’s construction. (In November this year, the Supreme Court struck down this law, declaring it unconstitutional.) The AAP has attempted to corner Amarinder over this issue by releasing copies of an advertisement from 1982, in which Amarinder welcomed Indira Gandhi to the state to inaugurate the SYL canal project—but the attack did not have much of an impact.

Amarinder has also spoken his mind freely on larger issues facing the Congress. He has gone on record to say that he does not think Rahul Gandhi is ready to take over the party—though he subsequently reversed this stand. Where Badal is an indefatigable campaigner, Amarinder is slow to start his day and prefers to wind up early. And, in contrast to the soft-spoken Badal, Amarinder is intemperate. In the 2014 Lok Sabha campaign, he took on Majithia aggressively, calling him the “head of an army of goons.” The strategy helped him defeat Arun Jaitley in Amritsar.

But it was this same intemperate streak that voters rejected when they re-elected Badal chief minister in 2012. The Congress actually won the popular vote that year, but lost several closely fought constituencies, and saw the Akali Dal edge it out in the seat count. The explanation that circulated at the time, which had some substance to it, was that in many cases, candidates close to Congress leaders that Amarinder perceived as a threat lost by small margins because he—and thus the state organisation—did not extend wholehearted support to their campaigns. Much the same story is playing out this time around, as Amarinder fights to deny tickets to those he sees as close to any of his perceived rivals in the party. This has forced the party high command to step in and ensure that Amarinder doesn’t take over the ticket-distribution process. The intervention indicates that the Congress realises how important this election is: defeat here would virtually signal an end to it being the natural challenger in the state to the BJP-Akali Dal combine, while victory could set it on a slow, if improbable, path to national recovery.

For the AAP, victory in Punjab would make it the only party other the BJP and the Congress to currently control more than one state or union territory in the country, and boost its claim to being an important national force. For now, though the state is desperately seeking a political alternative to the ruling regime, it faces an election where each of the two main challengers is struggling to ensure it can win a majority on its own.

IN EARLY NOVEMBER, the Punjab government issued double-spread advertisements in a number of major newspapers, announcing that the city of Amritsar had been made over “as part of Deputy Chief Minister Sukhbir Singh Badal’s dream project.” The advertisement claimed that the “Rs 210 crore endeavour has stunningly transformed the area around the iconic spots: the Town Hall, Jallianwala Bagh and Sri Harmandir Sahib”—referring, respectively, to a colonial-era administrative building, the walled public garden that was the site of a horrific massacre in 1919, and the central shrine of Sikhism, which includes the Golden Temple. “The once crowded corridor,” the advertisement continued, “is now a grandiosely designed ‘Heritage Walkway’ dotted with surreal aura statues of historical figures, architecturally refurbished buildings and giant LEDs live streaming kirtans from Sri Darbar Sahib”—the name Sikhs use for the temple complex.

A few days later, I drove from Delhi to Amritsar. Visitors now enter the city through an elaborate arched golden gate, and, if they are headed to the shrine, climb onto an overpass and travel on it for several kilometres, leaving the city’s choked traffic underneath. They then take an exit that leads directly to the third floor of a multi-level parking lot near the Harmandir Sahib complex. From here, stairs lead down to the renovated walkway. The new flyover allows visitors to skim over the chaotic mess they once had to wade through to reach the shrine. But the route and the complex at the end of it can leave one feeling that the shrine has been whisked away from Amritsar into some Disney fantasy.
In the government advertisement, a statement by the deputy chief minister explained the motivation for the “Heritage Walkway” project. “Once in a life-time, everyone gets an inspirational call from God,” he proclaimed. “In a flash, this reveals to us the purpose of our being born.” He himself had had such a moment, he recounted, one morning in Amritsar, as he “was walking barefoot near Sri Harmandir Sahib.”

The shrine, Sukbhir said, “stands like the Heart of God Himself beating for humanity.” But devotees who visited it were “struck and saddened by the painful contrast of the divine splendor of the sacred shrine with images of narrow lanes, unkempt and ill-maintained shops and buildings and chaotic surroundings.” Sukhbir, too, was weighed down by such thoughts as he “walked under the starlit sky early that morning. Then, suddenly the moment turned into an inspirational experience. I felt a voice directing me to accept ‘seva’ to transform and beautify the whole place.” Having received this directive, “With strength bestowed on me by Akal Purakh, the blessings of the great Guru Sahiban and the sangat in Guru’s own image I undertook this seva. The rest is history.”

Sukbhir effectively claimed he had received divine revelation—something no Sikhs other than the Gurus have claimed in the 500-year history of their religion. In contrast, when Maharaja Ranjit Singh, the nineteenth-century founder of the Sikh Empire, renovated the complex and gave the central temple its golden covering, he put an inscription on the entrance gate that reads simply, “The gracious Guru through his benevolence considering Sri Maharaj Singh Sahib as his loving follower and servant got this work executed by him.”

I strolled ahead on the “grandiosely designed” walkway, curious to see if the new constructions warranted the advertisement’s florid tone. I realised quickly that they did, and that the word “surreal” in the advertisement was not out of place. Gleaming Victorian streetlamps lit up renovated facades of red sandstone. At the centre of a square, on a marble pedestal, a statue of Ranjit Singh towered over everything around it, including another nearby statue, of BR Ambedkar clutching the constitution, striding over a replica of the parliament building in Delhi. One restored bank building was flanked by stately Roman columns, while, some metres ahead, a McDonald’s outlet sported the familiar plastic golden arches of the brand’s logo. A few hundred yards away stood the refurbished Jallianwala Bagh memorial, a tribute to the hundreds who had been murdered there on the orders of General Reginald Dyer. One installation comprised a flame-shaped marble cloud embossed with grimacing faces, with a hole in the centre in which stood a golden replica of a burning torch—an aesthetic horror, no doubt, but one that did little to evoke the horrors of colonial mass murder.

After a dazed day spent wandering through Sukhbir’s vision, I made my way to the city’s Guru Nanak Dev University to meet Balvinder Singh, a professor in the Guru Ram Das School of Planning, and an expert on Amritsar’s heritage and history, and the various attempts over recent decades to renovate the surroundings of the Golden Temple. I was unsure what to expect, having learnt that, in Punjab, the mention of Sukhbir’s name was often enough to silence any open criticism.

I drove past the open spaces of the sprawling university, dotted with brick buildings, to arrive at the school of planning, tucked away at the rear of the campus. The professor, a soft-spoken Sikh, was seated at his desk, reading through a preprint of a recent paper of his on Amritsar’s heritage. He had no hesitation in expressing his views on the renovations.

“The whole project is very artificial, from the ugly Rs 8-crore gate at the entry to the town to the sandstone facades constructed along the heritage corridor,” he said. “They should have taken inspiration from the old streets of the town, rather than using Jaipur sandstone. They should have been sensitive to the city. Old buildings have been demolished, and marble has been used thoughtlessly. The idea should have been to preserve, not cleanse. I say this not because Sukhbir is involved but because rationally, as a professional, I find the project is wrong.”

Then his voice dropped, and he spoke as a man of faith. “The spirit of a place, its identity, is important,” he said. “Walking along the corridor, I find the vibration of the sacred has disappeared. Dil nu chubda hai. (It hurts the heart.) The spirit of the place has been drained out.”

The professor could well have been speaking about all of Punjab over the Badals’ ten years in power. The family, led by Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal, heading an alliance of his Shiromani Akali Dal and the Bharatiya Janata Party, has treated the state as a personal fiefdom, to be used to boost its own business interests and profile. If the shrine considered Sikhism’s most sacred is now a showcase for Sukhbir’s extravagance, some of Punjab’s most valuable businesses are now entries in the extended family’s portfolio. Most damningly, perhaps, a key cabinet minister and family member whose name has appeared in investigations into Punjab’s illicit drug trade remains in power and favour, even as the state reels under a drug-addiction crisis. Just how much political damage these years of misgovernance have done to the Badals will be clear this January, when Punjab goes to polls to elect a new government.

STATE HIGHWAY 21 heads south-west from Amritsar through rural Punjab, to the town of Bhikhiwind, and then onward to Khemkaran. In late November, much of the paddy crop had been harvested, but the burnt stubble of it, whose smoke had choked Delhi just a few days earlier was still visible in some fields. Along the highway in Bhikhiwind, winding bank queues threatened to spill over and block traffic—the after-effects of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recently announced demonetisation measure.

The district headquarters of Tarn Taran lay to the west, and Khemkaran further south, adjacent to the India-Pakistan border. In 1965, a thousand Indian and Pakistani tanks clashed on the outskirts of Khemkaran, in the biggest tank battle to occur between the Second World War and the Gulf War. The town’s location ensures that it will always be vulnerable in any skirmish on the international border.

This region has been more or less abandoned by the government. It suffers from economic underdevelopment and educational backwardness—the district has a literacy rate of 69 percent, well below the national average of 74 percent. The district’s lack of progress is also apparent from the high number of honour killings reported here. During the years of militancy in Punjab, in the 1980s and 1990s, Tarn Taran, considered the heartland of Sikhism, was often termed the Republic of Khalistan, and was known to be a place where the writ of Indian law barely ran. Its current reputation, however, owes more to the 2016 Bollywood film Udta Punjab, which depicted it as a drug haven.

Jagtar Singh, a 47-year-old truck driver, was waiting for me outside his home on the outskirts of Bhikhiwind. He led me past tethered buffaloes to a courtyard behind his house, and we sat on charpoys that had been pulled out for us. Above us, a parapet encircling the terrace came to a jagged halt where it had been broken down. Jagtar explained, “We’ve just sold the house, and we will be moving to a new house on the three acres of land we’ve bought from the sale. We’re tearing the bricks down.”

“We had no choice,” he continued. “We’ve run out of money. Gabbar has stolen everything of value in the house.” Gabbar is the name Jagtar uses for his eldest son, Sukhwinder, who is around 22 years old, and who for nearly five years has been addicted to the drug chitta, sold as a white powder.

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Hartosh Singh Bal is the political editor at The Caravan, and is the author of Waters Close Over Us: A Journey Along the Narmada. He was formerly the political editor at Open magazine.

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