Chandigarh: The death toll in Punjab due to consumption of hooch continues to rise, bringing Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh under attack not only from opposition parties but also members of his own Congress party.
The number of people killed after drinking spurious liquor has gone up to 104, with an additional 18 deaths reported Sunday. There have been 12 deaths each in Amritsar and Batala, and 80 in Tarn Taran district.
Arvind Kejriwal, the Delhi CM and chief of the Aam Aadmi Party, the principal opposition party in Punjab, Sunday demanded a CBI probe into the tragedy.
“Saddened by the loss of lives in Punjab due to illicit liquor. State govt needs to immediately take necessary steps to curb such mafias. The case should be handed over to CBI immediately as none of the illicit liquor cases from the last few months have been solved by local police,” Kejriwal tweeted.
Saddened by the loss of lives in Punjab due to illicit liquor. State govt needs to immediately take necessary steps to curb such mafias. The case should be handed over to CBI immediately as none of the illicit liquor cases from the last few months have been solved by local police
— Arvind Kejriwal (@ArvindKejriwal) August 2, 2020
The tweet invited a scathing reaction from Amarinder, who asked Kejriwal to “mind his own business”.
“So many people have died and all you are interested in is making political meat from the incident? Don’t you have any shame?” Amarinder asked Kejriwal in a statement issued in Chandigarh Sunday evening.
The Punjab government has instituted a magisterial probe into the hooch deaths.
SAD names local MLAs
Meanwhile, the Shiromani Akali Dal reiterated its demand for the CM’s resignation, and an independent probe by a sitting judge of Punjab and Haryana High Court. The SAD also named five sitting Congress MLAs for allegedly patronising hooch production and sale in the affected districts.
Former Punjab cabinet minister and senior Akali leader Bikram Singh Majithia said at least five MLAs of the areas where the deaths took place were directly or indirectly responsible for this tragedy, and families of the victims are openly naming these MLAs and their henchmen.
“The henchmen of these MLAs are now going from village to village where the deaths have taken place, terrorising the families to keep their mouths shut,” he alleged.
Sukhpal Bhullar, one of the five MLAs named by the Akalis, told ThePrint that he was in no way involved in these activities. “I too demand a CBI inquiry into these deaths. It is quite well known in these areas that people brew their own liquor using organic material like molasses and jaggery. But now liquor made of chemicals is being distributed like this and has led to so many deaths.”
A relative of Dharambir Agnihotri, another MLA named by Majithia, said he was not available for comment as he was in the hospital suffering from Covid-19.
The other MLAs named by Majithia are Ramanjit Singh Sikki, Harminder Gill and Sukhvinder Danny. They could not be contacted despite repeated attempts through phone calls.
Criticism within the Congress
CM Amarinder Singh had Saturday suspended seven excise officers and six police officers posted in the areas where the illicit liquor made out of pure spirit was distributed. A government spokesperson said Sunday 30 people have been arrested under five FIRs registered in the three districts of Tarn Taran, Amritsar and Gurdaspur.
However, senior Congress leaders have also asked the chief minister to get the “politician angle” thoroughly probed.
In a tweet Sunday, Congress MP from Ludhiana Ravneet Singh Bittu appreciated the quick action taken by the CM against the officers, but pointed out that “this nexus is not limited to a handful of officers”. “The real roots (sic) of this problem are some political people involved in this illegal activity,” he wrote.
— Ravneet Singh Bittu (@RavneetBittu) August 2, 2020
Rajya Sabha MP Partap Singh Bajwa said the tragedy symbolised the growing bureaucratic- police-liquor mafia nexus in the state.
“Reports suggest that the main accused in the present spurious liquor case has been active in the region for nearly two decades. It would not have been possible if the state and its administrative officers were not involved,” Bajwa said in a tweet.
The tragic death of 45 people due to spurious liquor in Punjab deeply saddens and troubles me. There is a pattern of such incidents which are damaging the public's faith in the administration of Punjab 1/n pic.twitter.com/fDOfdsYBmI
— Partap Singh Bajwa (@Partap_Sbajwa) August 1, 2020
Bajwa backed the opposition’s demand for an inquiry by a sitting high court judge.
Meanwhile, Amarinder’s cabinet colleague Sukhjinder Singh Randhawa told ThePrint that stricter action was required against the erring officers. “Their suspension is not enough. These people need to be dismissed from service,” he said.
The same demand was also put forth by Congress MLA from Gidderbaha, Amarinder Singh Raja Warring.
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