On 8 November, the Jammu and Kashmir governor NN Vohra took over as the president of the Tribune Trust, which manages the national daily The Tribune, in the wake of a controversy following the daily’s front-page apology to the former Punjab cabinet minister Bikram Singh Majithia. On 29 October, the national daily had published “an unconditional apology” to Majithia for reports from November 2014 and March 2015 “with prominent headlines” that suggested towards his “involvement … with an illegal drug syndicate.” The web publication The Print reported that the daily’s editor-in-chief Harish Khare has “offered his resignation in protest after the apology was forced upon him from the top.”
In November 2013, key players in Punjab’s synthetic-drug trade were arrested, and subsequently alluded to the involvement of Majithia—the brother-in-law of the former deputy chief minister Sukhbir Singh Badal—specifically naming him for his role in facilitating connections for the trade. In the January 2017 cover story, “Under A Cloud,” Hartosh Singh Bal reported on the political landscape of Punjab. In the following extract, Bal examines the allegations of Majithia’s involvement in the Rs 6,000-crore drug racket.
In the 2008 Punjabi movie 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 Rs 700 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.
This is an extract of Hartosh Singh Bal’s cover story, “Under A Cloud,” in the January 2017 issue of The Caravan.
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.