“Give us Jobs, Not drugs” Movement Gains Ground in Punjab
by Purushottam Sharma

The past two decades witnessed the dangerous proliferation of drugs in Punjab. Now, in Malwa, the land of the historic Mujara and Naxalbari peasant movements, for the past three months, youth under the initiative launched by CPI(ML) are agitating with a slogan – “Give us jobs, not drugs”. This agitation is gradually spreading to different parts of Punjab. The Bhagwant Mann led state government, which had promised to put an end to drug trade within a month if voted to power, is trying to diffuse this agitation. This agitation is posing a challenge to the ruling elites, bureaucracy and police officials who gained from the drug trade which started to flourish 20 years ago when the CM was Prakash Singh Badal. He was also responsible for the fake encounter on 28 July, 1970  of Baba Boojha Singh, the founder of CPI(ML) in Punjab.   

The ruling establishment in Punjab has sourced large amounts of illicit earnings through the drug trade. In Punjab, no family has been left untouched by the drug menace. While liquor consumption is not considered a menace, heroine (natural and synthetic) and medical drug consumption are considered to be the real culprits. As per a survey, every seventh person in Punjab is a drug user and every day, about 8 to 9 persons succumb to drug use, which amounts to about one lakh deaths in the past 20 years. Of these deaths, 90% of them are youngsters who are below the age of 35 years. It is common to find families selling their property and on the verge of ruin, because of the drug menace.

According to estimates, the daily drug trade is worth about Rs. 20 crore per day, and people in the 14 to 35 years age-group are the most vulnerable section. About 53% of all drug addicts use heroine, and even women are being inducted in the drug trade either as suppliers, or as users. The easy availability of drugs and door-step delivery has further compounded the problem.

The Chandigarh-based Post Graduate Institute of Medical Education and Research (PGIMER) released a book titled “Roadmap for prevention and control of substance abuse in Punjab”, in which it is stated that about 30 lakh, i.e., 15.4% population are drug users. According to the National Crime Records Bureau, there are 9,972 FIRs registered under the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act, 1985 in Punjab, which is the third highest in the country. On a per capita basis, Punjab tops this list.

The significance of the drug trade for the ruling classes and bureaucrats can be measured from the incidents pertaining to two police officials of the DSP rank. For the past 15 years, DSP Sushil Kumar Goyal has been posted in Mansa who has been allegedly acting as a bridge between drug peddlers and the ruling establishment. Activists in Mansa are demanding legal action against him. However, instead of initiating action against DSP Sushil, false cases have been registered against the activists. In contrast is DSP Balwinder Sekhon, who is said to have reported the nexus in a sealed envelope to the High Court, and hence was suspended from service and jailed for six months, allegedly to save the real culprits.

In April 2023, a youth named Parminder Singh and his friends approached CPIML Malwa Region in-charge – Rajwinder Singh Rana, and asked that the CPIML lead the fight against drugs under the banner of ‘Anti-Drug Task Force’ to reform the youth of Punjab. They said that in the past they had been involved in the drug business, had overcome their addiction, and felt that it was only the CPI(ML) that they could trust to lead this struggle. The Mansa district committee organized a mass convention on May Day 2023, wherein it was resolved to lead a grassroot campaign against drugs by forming a network of village and town level committees.

The campaign was warmly received by the people of Mansa district, but the drug peddlers, few medical stores and police officials were offended by the support the movement was receiving. They filed a false case under IPC Section 307 against five CPIML leaders and arrested Parminder Singh. Hundreds of people immediately gheraoed the Mansa police station in protest. After two days, thousands of people protested before the court, where the arrested leader was being produced before the judge. The police did not press for charges and Parminder Singh was released on the spot.

A delegation of CPIML and youth leaders met the SSP of Mansa to ask him to book the drug dealers within 45 days. CPIML leaders Rajwinder Rana, Jasbir Kaur Natt, Krishna Kaur, Balwinder Dharangna, Darshan Danewala, Gursewak Mann and Parminder Singh and Aman Sharma of the Anti-Drug Task Force utilized this period to form anti-drug committees in schools, colleges and villages, which mounted pressure on the police. Some petty drug peddlers were arrested, half a dozen medical stores selling drugs were sealed. Rattled by the support that this agitation received, the dark forces behind the drug trade conspired to finish-off this movement.

On July 15th, 2023, a large contingent of police force arrived at the house of Parminder Singh to arrest him. The police accused him of extorting Rs. 400 from a medical store and for parading a drug dealer with a garland of shoes. Despite protests by CPIML leaders, he was arrested. The next day, the ADGP of Punjab Police held a press conference in which he said that stopping drug trade was the job of the police and that they would not allow anyone else to take law into their hands. Another FIR was lodged against Parminder and others in Bathinda. On July 19th, a meeting was convened by CPIML at its office which was attended by about 60 organizations. It was decided to form a state-level Anti-Drug Action Committee led by Com. Rajwinder Singh Rana. A large rally was planned in Mansa on July 23rd. It was decided that leaders from Akali Dal, BJP, Congress and AAP would be restrained from addressing the rally. On July 23rd, about 7,000 to 8,000 people gathered from different parts of the state under the banner of ‘Joint Action Committee Against Drugs’, prominent among them were Rakesh Tikait, Ruldu Singh Mansa, Dr. Darshan Pal, Harinder Singh Lakhowal, Jagjit Singh Illewaal, Govind Singh, Vijay Kumar Bhikhi, AIPWA leader Jasbir Kaur Natt, and others. The main demands raised were the unconditional release of Parminder Singh and his co-activists, fixing responsibility on the local police in case of death by drugs and compensation for the deceased. An indefinite sit-in was started as the district head quarter to press for the fulfillment of the demands.   

To express their solidarity with the struggle, people from different parts of Punjab visited the sit-in protest. The organizers issued an ultimatum that if Parminder Singh is not unconditionally released, the sit-in would start in front of the houses of AAP MLAs from September 1st, and warning letters were handed to the MLAs. On August 31st, two AAP MLAs along with the OSD of the CM reached the protest site and requested the protestors to cancel the proposed gherao of MLAs. The action committee gave them a week’s time to secure the unconditional release of arrested leaders, failing which the houses of AAP MLAs would be gheraoed from September 12th.

Under pressure, the administration released Parminder and his co-activists on the night of September 11th. The administration started pressurizing the agitators to lift their sit-in protest, but they refused. The suspended DSP Balwinder Sekhon, along with many new groups, are now associating themselves with this anti-drug campaign. The fight against drugs is gaining momentum in Punjab.

Give us Jobs, Not drugs