On the night of June 23, 2021, the sounds of qawwali rang out from a Sufi shrine in Dhotian, a village in Punjab’s Tarn Taran district. The brutal second wave of the coronavirus pandemic hadn’t yet receded, but hundreds were in attendance at the shrine, dedicated to a Sufi saint named Ramzan Shah Qadri.

On the walls of the shrine were numerous posters, some of which showed the saint with other figures. The most prominent among these others were the two brothers Rashpal and Gurpal Singh – shown in one poster as receiving bright beams of blessings that were shooting out from Ramzan Shah Qadri’s palms.

The two brothers, who are the chief patrons of the shrine, belong to the Mazhabi Sikh community, which has roots that are at least 200 years old, and trace back to landless Dalit labourers who converted to Sikhism. The posters suggested that they intended to enmesh their reputations with that of the Sufi saint. As did the fact that they had appended the name Ramzan Shah Qadri to their own names.

The all-night vigil was the first major event to be held in over a year at the shrine, which had lain silent during this period.

If the celebrations seemed particularly enthusiastic, there was a reason for it. Gurpal Singh was in attendance, after eleven months in prison, having secured bail just 15 days earlier.

The brothers are the prime accused in a tragic case that left Punjab reeling in mid-2020, even as the state struggled to combat the Covid-19 pandemic that was raging across the country. Over the end of July and early August, 123 people died after consuming hooch that contained denatured spirit, often used to make paint. Tarn Taran district was the worst hit, with 94 deaths. Seven excise officials and six police officials were suspended immediately after the tragedy.

Hundreds of people took ill after drinking spurious alcohol in Punjab in July and August 2020. Tarn Taran was the worst hit, with 94 of the final total of 123 deaths occurring in the district. Photo: Narinder Nanu/AFP

Gurpal was named as a prime accused in the case after police alleged that he and his brother Rashpal had distributed the poisoned alcohol. Gurpal had already been arrested, 20 days before the first hooch death, after allegedly being found with nearly 4,000 litres of spirit in the town of Phillaur, at a police checkpost.

Rashpal has been on the run since the tragedy.

A local court in Tarn Taran granted bail to Gurpal on June 8, 2021. The court noted, among other observations, that he had not initially been named in the First Information Report in the hooch tragedy, but that his name had been added later. It maintained that his culpability could “only be decided after the conclusion of the complete trial.”

More than a year after the tragedy, the police investigation has not led to any convictions.

At the qawwali night, during a break in the music, a singer thanked both brothers, describing them as the chief servants of the saint Baba Ramzan Shah Qadri. The singer assured the audience that everyone went through ups and downs. Then, encouraging the crowd to applaud for Gurpal, he took a cheeky dig at law enforcement authorities, telling Gurpal, “May god continue to grow your reputation in the Punjab Police.”

The urgency of Punjab’s alcohol problem is under-recognised – it is one of three states where, a survey found, more than half the male population consumed alcohol. While Punjab’s drug abuse problem has drawn wide attention, the survey, done in 2019 by India’s social justice ministry along with the All India Institute of Medical Sciences and the National Drug Dependence Treatment Centre, suggested the state also had an alcohol dependence problem.

Over the past two decades, officials say an illicit liquor trade has grown in the state in parallel with a boom in the liquor industry. A retired government official, who worked with Punjab’s Excise and Taxation Department for 15 years, pointed out the liquor business is one of the most regulated in India. “Each and every bottle is counted and accounted for. Smuggling is not possible without the connivance of police, politicians and excise officials.”

Within days of the hooch tragedy, two Congress Rajya Sabha MPs had criticised their own party, accusing the state government, then led by Amarinder Singh, of “clear-cut failure”. The Congress isn’t the only party to have faced allegations of negligence, and worse, with respect to the illicit alcohol trade. Small-time leaders of the Shiromani Akali Dal have been booked for illicit liquor smuggling over the years, especially when the party was in power between 2007 and 2017.

The criticism of the Congress government by its own MPs last year was an early sign of an impending storm: last week, after months of fractious infighting within the party, Amarinder Singh resigned, and was replaced by Charanjit Singh Channi, the state’s first-ever Dalit chief minister. Many see this as a strategic move ahead of the 2022 elections in the state, which has the highest percentage of Dalits in the country.

The hooch tragedy sparked protests against the Congress government in Punjab. In Amritsar, workers of the Bharatiya Janata Party burnt an effigy of Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh. Photo: Narinder Nanu/ AFP

An Amritsar-based police officer who spoke on condition of anonymity told me that the brothers were only two of several figures in Punjab’s illicit liquor trade, many of whom remain untouched by agencies.

Others, too, pointed out that the brothers aren’t the biggest players in the field. Anil Vinayak, an Amritsar-based social activist who has been vocal against the liquor mafia in his city, alleged,

“Everybody from the police and excise officers to politicians are deeply involved in this business. That is why it has exploded out of proportion.”

He added, “The entire rank and file of officials is involved, from the sarpanch to the top of the state. A kneejerk reaction after the hooch tragedy cannot bring long-term solutions to this problem.”

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Liquor can be broadly classified into two categories: legal liquor, on which excise is paid to the state, and illegal liquor, which is smuggled to evade excise. Illegal liquor can be further classified into three categories: country liquor, which is known as lahan in Punjab; hooch, sometimes referred to as spirituous liquor; and illegal liquor that is bottled under the labels of existing brands.

Lahan is typically made in homes or outdoors, from raw materials such as rice and cane sugar, and distributed among friends, acquaintances and family. It may also be sold locally, outside the tax radar.

Hooch – which the Singh brothers allegedly distributed – is typically manufactured from Extra Neutral Alcohol, or ENA, the pure alcohol that is produced at distilleries and then processed into different liquors. The ENA is either made by the liquor company or supplied to it by a manufacturer. In the legal manufacturing route, it is then blended with flavours, colouring agents and other substances to make specific types and brands of alcohol.

Though different liquors such as rum, whisky and vodka, are supposed to have different raw materials, in India, definitional loopholes in the regulations allow the majority of them to be made from the same base ENA, most often manufactured from molasses, as a 2017 story in Outlook noted.

“From Punjab, ENA is smuggled to states as far as Assam, Gujarat and Bihar,” said the retired official. (Gujarat and Bihar are both dry states.) “The ENA is also smuggled to local illegal distilleries inside the state to manufacture various illegal liquors.”

ENA is often smuggled and sold, with or without further processing, as hooch, typically in packets or unlabelled bottles. Hooch is one of the cheapest forms of consumable alcohols, with a litre sold for as little as Rs 100. It is thus commonly consumed by the poor, who cannot afford more expensive branded liquor. Because it is not subjected to any quality controls, it is susceptible to contamination and can cause serious harm to, and sometimes kill those who consume it.

Stocks of ENA might also be siphoned off to make the third form of illicit alcohol: liquor that is bottled and labelled under existing brand names, and sold in the black market.

The retired excise official pointed out that the number of distilleries in the state had increased from four to 16 over the past 15 years. “The state is surplus in both grain and molasses as well as manufacturing distilleries,” he said. “It is from these distilleries that black marketing of illicit spirit happens.”

Among the key figures who has been accused of involvement in the illicit liquor trade is Ashok Jain, the chairman of the NV Group, which, according to one report, had a turnover of Rs 1,360 crore in 2019. Jain, whose group owns a distillery in Patiala, as well as in other states, was arrested on charges of smuggling liquor and is now out on bail. An email to Jain about the allegations against him had not received a response at the time of publication.

According to the retired excise official, the mushrooming of distilleries in Punjab began in the 2000s after licences were granted to new manufacturers, including the late liquor baron Ponty Chadha. “Originally, there were only four distilleries in Punjab: in Amritsar, Kapurthala, Patiala and Mohali,” he said. “Chadha opened the fifth distillery in Hoshiarpur. Within a decade, the licensed distilleries were monopolised by those who either had a criminal background or had political backing.”

In India, many different liquors have the same base Extra Neutral Alcohol. The same base spirit is sometimes smuggled to make hooch, as well as illicit batches of liquor under known brand labels. Photo: Srishti Jaswal

Of the 16 distilleries in the state, at least eight are connected to influential people, including family members of the late Chadha and his brother Hardeep, who died in a shootout with each other in 2012. The MLA and former Congress minister Rana Gurjit Singh’s family owns a distillery in Tarn Taran. The former Congress MLA, Venod Sharma owns one in Patiala. The ex-Akali Dal MLA Deep Malhotra’s Oasis Group owns distilleries in Ferozepur and Bhatinda, as well as liquor vends. Emails sent to these individuals inquiring about the links between distilleries and the state’s illicit liquor network had not received responses at the time of publication.

Politicians also have links to the liquor retail business. Punjab’s health minister Balbir Sidhu’s brother own liquor vends in the state. Sidhu told Scroll.in that his brother had valid licenses for the vends, and paid all applicable taxes and duties to the government. He said that he himself had nothing to do with the business. Among others, the Congress leader Amrik Dhillon and former Akali Dal member Shiv Lal Doda also own several liquor shops. Doda is currently serving a life term for murder.

Residents of Dhotian who have seen the Singh brothers’ liquor business grow remember that it began in the 1990s with their father, Boota Singh, who used to sell country-made liquor on horseback. “He used to stack 100 bottles on his horse and visit each street in nearby villages. Each bottle was sold for Rs 2–Rs 5 that time. That is how he started his business,” said 70-year-old Gurdeep Singh, a tutor of the subject of commerce.

An assistant sub-inspector who is posted in Dhotian said on condition of anonymity that at the time, there was barely any patrolling to keep a check on illicit liquor. “In the 2000s, Gurpal and Rashpal took over the trade, which started with country-made liquor.” But gradually, the assistant sub-inspector said, “they expanded their business to spirit-based liquor, opium, chitta or heroin. After that there was no looking back.”

The brothers have their share of defenders in Dhotian too.

Kuldeep Singh, who had been their classmate in school and is now a neighbour, ardent follower and caretaker of their homes in their absence, insisted that the two were innocent and had been framed by the police.

“They are very kind,” he said. “They are the ones who invested everything they had in this shrine. They are always ready to help our community. At times they paid for the treatment and education of our kids.”

The brothers also won the appreciation of the local Dalit community by building the Sufi shrine in the village. According to the 2011 census, Dhotian village has a population of around 7,661 people, of which around 35% are Dalits. The shrine, which Kuldeep said the brothers began work on around five years ago, provided a meeting place, and a place for spiritual expression, for the members of the community.

Yogesh Snehi, who teaches history at Ambedkar University Delhi, and has published a book on Sufi shrines in Punjab, explained that there were innumerable Sufi shrines and saints across the state. He pointed out that after Partition, when a large number of shrines were abandoned, Dalits took over the responsibility of the upkeep of many of them. “Sufism has a long tradition of being a reformist culture and gives a cultural and spiritual expression to otherwise oppressed Dalits,” he said. “So, many such shrines are either built by Dalits or they are caretakers.”

This apparent fluidity of religious and cultural identities is not unusual in Punjab, said Jagrup Singh Sekhon, a professor at Amritsar’s Guru Nanak Dev University. “In one family we may find a man who is a practitioner of Sufism, another family member follows Christianity, while the rest of the family is Sikh,” he explained. “On paper, they all will be Hindus. Such examples are abundant in Punjab.”

Goodwill amongst the community towards the brothers was sufficiently widespread that on August 31, 2020, weeks after they were named as the prime accused in the case, they were featured in a short video clip uploaded on YouTube by HDFC Bank, where they were described as “neighbourhood hero of Dhotian” for providing food and other supplies to people who were struggling during the lockdown. It was part of a series done by the bank, said Harinder Sandhu, branch manager of HDFC Bank’s Jandiala Road branch in Tarn Taran. Sandhu added that the bank was not aware of the allegations against the brothers. After Scroll.in contacted the bank, the video was taken down from YouTube.

A view of the shrine of Ramzan Shah Qadri in Dhotian village (left). On posters and other art at the shrine, Rashpal Singh and Gurpal Singh are shown receiving blessings from the Sufi saint (right). Photo: Srishti Jaswal

What is particularly unfortunate is that authorities had the brothers, as well as the wider illicit alcohol trade, on their radar ahead of the tragedy, and yet were unable to intercept and prevent it.

Apart from Gurpal Singh’s arrest ahead of the tragedy, Jaswant Singh, a resident of Muchhal village in Amritsar district, who was allegedly an associate of the brothers, and who was an accused in another case of illicit liquor smuggling, had been arrested on May 21, 2020, under the Excise Act. He was out on bail, and had consumed the same toxic hooch that the brothers are alleged to have distributed, and died in Amritsar.

Further, the state government had launched Operation Red Rose on May 17, 2020, a month before the tragedy, aiming, according to a press release, “to check illicit distillation, smuggling of liquor, bootlegging within Punjab”. The operation had begun just days after various Congress MLAs tweeted that the then chief secretary Karan Avtar Singh, who also held the excise and taxation portfolio, was involved in the illicit liquor trade. Soon after, Karan Avtar was divested of the latter portfolio.

Punjab’s excise commissioner Rajat Agarwal reeled off a list of results that Operation Red Rose, which is still ongoing, had achieved. According to him, between the 2019-’20 period and the 2020-’21 period so far, the number of total arrests in cases related to illicit alcohol had gone up from just over 13,000 to just over 16,000; the number of FIRs filed had gone up from just under 12,000 to more than 17,000, and the number of convictions had gone up from just under 300 to more than 770.

As part of the operation, the instalment of mass flow meters, which allow officials to track the quantities of ENA produced, was made mandatory in all distilleries. Such measures helped detect discrepancies between the amount of ENA produced, and the amount declared.

A number of distilleries had been fined by the excise department for discrepancies such as manufacturing more ENA than they had registered in their books. Agarwal told me that the NV Group’s distillery in Patiala was fined Rs 7.48 crore, that the Adie Browson Group’s distillery in Gurdaspur was fined Rs 1.10 crore, and that Pioneer Industries in Gurdaspur, a distillery and agricultural products manufacturer was fined Rs 70 crore. But Agarwal insisted that none of the state’s registered distilleries had been linked to the hooch tragedy, and rather, that the contaminated alcohol had its origins in an industrial unit.

Emails sent to the NV Group and the Adie Broswon Group had not received responses at the time of publication. Pioneer Industries denied any wrongdoing, stating that the “excise duty demanded in the order has been quantified in an irrational manner and we have filed appeal against the raised demand before the State Competent Authority which is still pending”.

After this story was published, the NV Group responded in an email stating that its distillery was “law-abiding”, and that “the entire process from manufacturing to dispatch is strictly monitored by the excise department”. The email further noted that the question of the fine imposed on the company was “subjudice before concerned court, therefore making any comment at this stage may create obstacle in judicial proceedings.”

When asked why, if Operation Red Rose had been launched before the tragedy, it failed to prevent it, Aggarwal said, “Enforcement is a continuous activity. The department has adopted a totally zero tolerance policy towards anyone indulging in wrongdoings in the field of liquor.” He pointed out that the excise department had lodged many FIRs, made arrests, imposed large penalties on distilleries and suspended or cancelled licenses of units. “Our conviction rate has gone up decently, we have even made our laws more stringent,” he added. “We will continue taking strict action against anybody howsoever big or small who indulges in any malpractices.”

After the hooch tragedy, the police and the administration swung into action, visiting distilleries to inspect their stocks. But more than a year later, there have been no convictions. Photo: Narinder Nadu/ AFP

The police officer based in Amritsar said that the supply chains established for illegal liquor were disrupted due to the coronavirus lockdown, which may have led to the manufacture of spurious alcohol. “These distilleries were closed for nearly two months,” he said. “The smuggling routes were also blocked because of curfew. It created a shortfall of ENA by 20–25%, whereas the demand for liquor increased manifold during that time.”

To meet this shortfall, “bootleggers turned to industry-based alcohol, which is also called denatured spirit,” the retired excise official said. “Used in the hardware industry, this spirit is made unfit for human consumption by adding toxic chemicals in it.”

The police even arrested a paint manufacturer, Rajeev Joshi, for allegedly supplying the raw materials for the manufacture of the hooch. But he was released on bail in August this year, for lack of evidence.

The Amritsar-based police officer admitted that it was difficult to establish how the hooch got contaminated, since by its very nature, its entire supply chain lacks quality control and oversight.

Whatever the source of the contaminated alcohol, the authorities had leads pointing to an impending disaster after three labourers died and one farmer lost his vision in Tarn Taran just a week before the tragedy began to unfold at a larger scale. Hindustan Times reported that Ravinder Singh, the farmer who lost his eyesight, complained to the Tarn Taran police on July 18, but that an FIR on the basis of his complaint was only filed on July 27. The first death was recorded two days later.

“It appears that the Punjab police were unable to connect the links in the supply of illicit liquor that led to the deaths,” said Sarabjit Singh Verka, an investigator with the non-profit Punjab Human Rights Organisation. “You cannot call it negligence, it is corruption.”

However, Dhruman H Nimbale, who was the senior superintendent of police of Tarn Taran until August this year, stated in a written reply to Scroll.in, “As soon as deaths due to illicit liquor were noticed, FIRs were registered and immediate arrest of more than 20 persons were assured”. He also noted that a total of 71 people had been arrested in the case.

This included the paint manufacturer from Ludhiana, village residents accused of selling hooch and a few business men accused of being regional distributors – but Rashpal and Gurpal Singh were central to the case.

The case isn’t the first instance of the brothers’ entanglement with the law. Punjab police records that Scroll.in accessed revealed that a total of 27 FIRs have been registered against the brothers since 2000. Rashpal has been booked under 17 cases, including a 2003 murder case. Meanwhile, Gurpal has 10 cases against him, including an attempt-to-murder case in 2008. The list also includes cases under the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act, Arms Act and Excise Act, as well as cases of theft and smuggling.

“To be frank, it is a game of cat and mouse,” Nimbale admitted. “We are trying our best. There is a consistent effort from our side. Every time a person is granted bail, it is more difficult to arrest him next time. Unfortunately, we have not been able to arrest Rashpal yet.”

Kuldeep Singh, the brothers’ close aide, said that they had links to both Congress and Akali Dal leaders. “The local MLA and MP visited the homes of Gurpal and Rashpal many times,” he said. “On their request, Gurpal and Rashpal asked our community to vote for the Congress in the 2019 general election. Before this, the brothers were affiliated to Akali Dal.” Now, he said, they had been abandoned by all parties.

Nimbale denied that the brothers had political connections. But at least some such connections are demonstrable. A couple of months before the 2019 general election, Patti Congress MLA Harminder Singh Gill wrote on Facebook that 55 families affiliated to the Akali Dal had joined the Congress “with the inspiration of Rashpal Singh Shalu, Gurpal Singh and Capt Heera Singh”. Patti is 23 kilometres from Dhotian village.

A month after the tragedy, Tarn Taran Congress president Manjit Singh Ghasitpur resigned, alleging that party leaders, civil and police administration were sheltering illicit liquor smugglers. The Congress leadership, as well as the police, have denied this.

Significant law enforcement resources have been dedicated to the investigation, including a divisional commissioner and two special investigation teams, as well as a task force of the enforcement directorate.

However, activists and political observers that I spoke to said that they don’t expect the probe to net the real culprits, and alleged that the rot starts at the top. The assistant sub-inspector, too, cautioned that the brothers, even with their reach and influence, are still small fry.

“After all, the brothers are just the distributors of the illicit liquor,” he said. “They do not manufacture it. The big fish are still out in the open. Unless they are caught, nothing will happen.” He declined to specify who the “big fish” were, to whom he was referring.

In January 2021, Nimbale claimed that the government crackdown had rid Tarn Taran of the scourge of illicit alcohol. “The procurement of illicit liquor is not possible in Tarn Taran under my watch now,” he said.

But two months earlier, on a visit to Tarn Taran in November 2020, I met a 63-year-old farmer who has been alcohol-dependent for three decades. He was a regular customer of two women who sold illicit ENA-based liquor in his village. The farmer said that the hooch tragedy barely had any effect on the supply of illegal alcohol in his village. He assured me that if I wanted, he would procure some hooch for me.

“Both these women kept their shops closed for just 12 days after the incident. After that, it was back on track,” he said. He added that a bottle of hooch, which was otherwise sold for between Rs 30 and Rs 40, was delivered to his home for Rs 70 during the lockdown.

“It is a food chain,” the Amritsar-based police officer said. Local sellers, like the women who sold hooch to the farmer, are “the bottom of the chain,” he said. “Above them, there are distributors like Gurpal and Rashpal. We all know who is above them, but we will not name, arrest or chargesheet them. The business will not only recover, but also flourish after the hooch deaths.”

This story has been updated to include a response from the NV Group, which was received after publication.

Srishti Jaswal is a member of The Reporters’ Collective. The Collective supported the initial reportage for the story.

This reporting is made possible with support from Report for the World, an initiative of The GroundTruth Project.