Aligarh: The men suspected to be behind the Aligarh hooch tragedy allegedly got into the alcohol crime business 15 years ago. They started out smuggling liquor from Haryana, much cheaper than in Uttar Pradesh, into many districts, including Aligarh, police sources told ThePrint.
But last year, a change in plans was allegedly forced when, in February, Haryana increased its excise duty on country liquor by 22 per cent. A Covid cess of Rs 5 per quarter followed, and this rendered the “cartel’s” business model less profitable, sources in Aligarh police said.
The accused then shifted to distilling their own liquor — and fraudulently sold it under a government-approved brand name, the sources added. They were rolling in over 100 per cent profits until tragedy struck.
Spurious liquor suspected to be linked to this operation has been confirmed as the cause of death of 35 people, according to the Aligarh Chief Medical Officer (CMO). It is under the lens as the cause of another 71 deaths, but a medical confirmation is awaited, the CMO said.
In his interrogation, one of the main accused, Vipin Yadav, is believed to have told police that a batch of ethanol he smuggled to produce the liquor was contaminated with methyl alcohol, which is dangerous to consume and lethal over a certain quantity.
Yadav is one of three prime suspects arrested in the case so far. The others have been identified by police as Anil Chaudhary and Rishi Sharma.
While Chaudhary and Sharma were the alleged kingpins of the “cartel”, Yadav allegedly did the smuggling.
Two others — Munish Sharma (brother of Rishi) and Neeraj Chaudhary (Anil Chaudhary’s nephew) — have also been named as accused.
Aligarh police have so far registered 17 FIRs, arrested 61 people, and seized more than 7,000 litres of liquor as part of their investigation into the matter. Fourteen police personnel have been suspended for failing to crack down on the racket, and three illegal liquor factories shut down.
They’ve been booked under the UP Excise Act, and sections 272 (adulteration of food or drink), 273 (sale of noxious food or drink item), 304 (causing death by negligence), 420 (cheating), 467 (forgery), 468 (forgery with intent to cheat), and 307 (attempt to murder) of the IPC.
“We are currently building a case to book the perpetrators under the Gangster Act and National Security Act as well,” said Aligarh Police Commissioner Gaurav Dayal. Police plan to register separate FIRs against the accused under the laws.
A tragedy unfolds
On 28 May, Aligarh reported multiple deaths caused by alcohol poisoning, and a police investigation ensued.
By 30 May, Yadav had been arrested. Chaudhary was taken into custody a day later. Sharma was arrested on 6 June from Bulandshahr after a 9-day-long manhunt.
In the meantime, however, the hooch toll continued to climb.
On 4 June, villagers and brick kiln workers in Aligarh’s Jawan and Akrabad areas spotted cartons of liquor dumped into the Ganga canal — allegedly thrown there to hoodwink the raiding police teams — and drank it.
Between 28 May and 5 June, 106 deaths reported were suspected to have been caused by alcohol poisoning. In 35 cases, the post-mortem examination confirmed death by poisoning.
Speaking to ThePrint, Aligarh CMO Pratap Bhanu Singh Kalyani said they are “pegging the deaths at 35 because traces of spurious liquor were found in these bodies during the autopsy and they reeked of alcohol when they were cut open”. “We’re waiting for the viscera reports of all 106 bodies and will give a final opinion on the basis of these forensic reports,” he added.
Yadav, police sources said, told them during his interrogation that he was informed about the presence of methyl alcohol in the smuggled batch on the evening of 27 May. He allegedly decided at the time that it was too late and didn’t do anything.
Asked about methyl alcohol, CMO Kalyani said it causes rapid generation of formaldehyde in the body, which damages the optic nerve leading to blindness, affects the kidneys, lungs and the digestive system. Where consumption is more, it can lead to death, he added.
‘How the cartel worked’
For their distillation operations, the accused allegedly set up factories and began to smuggle ethanol from other states. These factories, police said, had been operational since last year.
The alcohol was fraudulently sold under the brand name “Good Evening”. Currently, Good Evening has been completely taken out of circulation in Uttar Pradesh, Senior Superintendent of Police (SSP) Kalanidhi Naithani said.
Police said their profits exceeded 100 per cent. “The liquor they made cost them Rs 1,500 per carton, which they would sell for Rs 3,600 a carton. If they took the legal route, the carton would cost them Rs 3,000 and they would have to sell it for Rs 3,600 a carton,” Deputy Inspector General (DIG) Manoj Kumar said. “So, they were earning 100 per cent more profits by distilling their own alcohol.”
Aligarh district has an estimated 545 wine shops, of which 212 deal in country-made liquor, according to the SSP’s office. Of these, 50 registered shops were run by the “cartel”, police said. Asked if these shops had come under the lens before, the SSP office said they hadn’t been raided before this episode.
As part of the current investigation, the Aligarh SSP’s office informed ThePrint, police have raided more than 200 country liquor shops in five states. The raids in Aligarh have led to the seizure of 7,476 litres of illicit liquor, 5,723 fake bottle caps and 3,200 fake packages, and 1,000 litres of spirit to make alcohol.
Among the three factories raided and shut down, one is believed to be located in Adhaun village, Akrabad. When ThePrint visited this factory, local villagers denied seeing any activity here since early 2020.
According to them, the factory was used to make batteries till early 2020.
“I have been working on this farm all my life. If I had seen any activity, I’d have told you. Now don’t ask me more questions,” said a farmer whose farm is situated right opposite the factory.
Sources in Uttar Pradesh Police told ThePrint that Chaudhary and Sharma also faced earlier cases for grave crimes related to spurious liquor, kidnapping, attempt to murder and atrocities against lower castes, but received a clean chit.
“Chaudhary had been booked under a case of spurious liquor in 2008 under Gangster Act, relevant sections of the Excise Act and the Trademark Act. However, in 2011, police dropped his name from the case during investigation and he was given a clean chit,” said a source in the police.
According to the sources, in 2005 and 2009, Munish was booked under IPC sections 364 (kidnapping) and 307 (attempt to murder). In 2017, Munish and Rishi were booked under the SC/ST Act. In all the cases, a final report was submitted and they weren’t charged with the crime, the sources said.
Asked about the grounds for clearing them, the police sources said they don’t have access to the case files, and thus don’t know the reason.
Police, the SSP office said, have drawn up a list of 465 people named in cases related to spurious liquor in Aligarh over the past decade, but cleared for lack of evidence. They will be investigated again, they added.
Whiff of political clout
Both Chaudhary and Sharma have been described as being powerful locally.
Earlier this year, Chaudhary’s wife Mamata Chaudhary, an RLD candidate, won the zilla panchayat elections, while Sharma won the Block Development Councillor (BDC) elections. His wife Renu Sharma was the block head from Jawan in Aligarh earlier and was associated with the BJP.
“Both Sharma and Chaudhary have been seen with the District Magistrate (DM) on multiple occasions and enjoyed a comfortable relationship with him,” said Uttar Pradesh Youth Congress Vice-President Gaurang Dev Chauhan.
ThePrint reached Aligarh DM Chandra Bhushan Singh via multiple calls and WhatsApp messages for a comment on the allegations, but there was no response till the time of publishing this report.
However, Aligarh Commissioner Gaurav Dayal dismissed the accusation, saying the DM had taken strict action against all accused. “Both Chaudhary and Sharma were affiliated to political parties, and it’s normal for a DM to mingle with or talk to politicians who hold a certain position of power in the district,” he told ThePrint over the phone.
Gaurang said there was no way the cartel functioned for over 15 years without the help of successive governments, adding that the main accused have been photographed with BJP leaders on various occasions.
Samajwadi Party leader Zamirullah Khan claimed the “cartel was an open secret”. “Do you think they worked for so long without the support of police or the current administration? Everyone knew what they were doing but continued to turn a blind eye to their misdeeds,” he added.
Aligarh BJP chief Rishipal Jat said neither Rishi Sharma nor his wife were active members of the party. “As many as 1,166 BDCs are affiliated with the party. You think we know about the entire lives of every BDC member? Any person who is remotely related to the BJP is made a veteran leader in the media overnight,” he said.
(Edited by Sunanda Ranjan)