The north Indian state of Punjab, bordering Pakistan on the west, has long been afflicted with an all-pervading drug problem. Every government in the state has had to confront this complex problem head on to retain public faith on the administration.
Captain Amarinder Singh – the current Chief Minister of the state belonging to the Indian National Congress (INC) – has been at the helm of affairs for 15 months now. On 2 July, he announced a cabinet decision to sentence all drug smugglers/peddlers to death.
My govt has decided to recommend the death penalty for drug peddling/smuggling. The recommendation is being forwarded to the Union government. Since drug peddling is destroying entire generations, it deserves exemplary punishment. I stand by my commitment for a drug free Punjab. pic.twitter.com/dXZTsDwVpf
— Capt.Amarinder Singh (@capt_amarinder) July 2, 2018
Renewed War on Drugs
In his current tenure, the Captain has been a pale shadow of his former self. In the past few days, a number of important decisions have been taken in context of the ‘war on drugs.’ This is unsurprising given the recent spurt in drug-related casualties. In June itself, 25 people lost their lives to drug-related instances.
Besides the cabinet decision, the Punjab CM also wrote to the Union Home Minister on the issue, arguing “that a harsher penalty for even first-time offenders in drug peddling could be a deterrent to those indulging in this illegal activity.”
the Chief Minister remains insulated from his own parliamentarians and ministers, while excessively depending upon a select section of the bureaucracy.
He also mentioned steps taken by the government to tackle the menace, including the arrest of over 18,000 drug peddlers in the state and facilitating treatment of addicts. Days later, the government ordered dope tests for its own employees – including police personnel – at various stages of their entire tenures.
Obstacles and Challenges for the Captain
Notwithstanding the exact merits of the Punjab government’s recent policy moves, there remains a significant degree of skepticism about this new ‘war on drugs’.
First, Captain Amarinder stands accused by many of his own party members for being soft on the Badals – a powerful political family in Punjab that leads the Sikh-centric Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD), currently an ally of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
This is cited by both Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) and Congress leaders as one of the key reasons why no action is being initiated against top Akali leaders. Navjot Singh Sidhu – currently a cabinet minister in the state – has asked for stern action against former SAD minister, Bikramjit Singh Majithia, citing a report submitted by Harpreet Sidhu, who heads the Punjab police’s Anti-drug Special Task Force (STF).
the government has ordered dope tests for its own employees – including police personnel – at various stages of their entire tenures.
Second, the CM remains insulated from his own parliamentarians and ministers, while excessively depending upon a select section of the bureaucracy. This means that he is not in sync with the growing resentment, not just amongst his electorate but also his own party members. His inability to take targeted action against key culprits after making a maximalist commitment to eradicate drugs within four weeks of taking over, even swearing on a Gutka/holy book.
Third, the nexus between police officials, drug smugglers and politicians is far deeper than what most people think. This nefarious relationship often tarnishes the credibility of investigations, thus allowing the problem to continue for years.
Fourth, in light of a growing perception that the current government has failed to curb the drug menace, there will now be pressure to come up with quick-fix policies, some of which may be counter-productive and detached from ground realities. Recent measures have already been dubbed as farcical by many observers.
Will the Captain’s War on Drugs work?
While the Captain’s recent announcements may placate some activists, there is a degree of across-the-board cynicism. Punjab police is already notorious for its high-handedness in dealing with ‘anti-social’ elements. Any further push from the administration to go full throttle might bring back the tense days of harsh police action.
The prime concerns amongst stakeholders are the fairness of the state police’s anti-narcotics drives, whether the big fishes would be apprehended, and most importantly, if high level officials and politicians involved in the drug business would be brought to account.
the effectiveness of death penalty in dealing with this problem is suspect. There is little data to suggest that capital punishment can serve as a real deterrent against drug smuggling and peddling at all levels.
A large number of police officers, for instance, are believed to be involved in this murkey dealings. While the CM has refused to order enquiries against senior officers, who have been accused by the opposition of shielding colleagues involved in drug rackets, he has ordered an inquiry against a police officer Kanwaljit Singh Dhillon, who stands accused of dropping a drug smuggling case against three junior cops in September 2013.
Furthermore, the effectiveness of death penalty in dealing with this problem is suspect. There is little data to suggest that capital punishment can serve as a real deterrent against drug smuggling and peddling at all levels. There are also good chances that this harsh instrument is misused for personal and cartel-level rivalries.
In his previous tenure, Captain Amarinder Singh was far more inexperienced; but, his focus on key governance issues had endeared him to the masses. The toxic nexus between politicians, the police, and drug smugglers calls for strong political will and moral convictions from the administration, not knee-jerk policy moves.
Tridivesh Singh Maini is a New Delhi-based policy analyst currently associated with the Jindal School of International Affairs, OP Jindal Global University, Sonepat.
Views expressed here are the author’s own.