In his January 2017 cover story, Under a Cloud, Hartosh Singh Bal reported on the failure of the Shiromani Akali Dal regime in curbing the several crises that face Punjab, which heads to polls on 4 February. Bal writes that the Badal government’s continual refusal to acknowledge the drug-addiction crisis plaguing the state has led to a strong sense of disillusionment among the voters. In the following excerpt, he recounts the efforts of Jagtar Singh, a resident of Bhikhiwind, to curtail his son’s addiction to chitta, sold as a white powder.
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 some chitta.”
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.
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.