Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh on Sunday hit out at the Centre for a letter that flagged the alleged drugging and exploitation of migrant farm workers in the state, PTI reported.

Singh alleged that the letter was another conspiracy to defame the farmers of Punjab, who have been protesting against the Centre’s agricultural laws near Delhi since November. He added that the Centre was continuously trying to discredit the farmers by labelling them as “terrorists, urban naxals and goons”.

The home ministry, in a letter to the Punjab government on March 17, said that the Border Security Force had rescued 58 labourers from Gurdaspur, Amritsar, Ferozepur and Abohar districts between 2019 and 2020. “During the course of questioning, it emerged that most of them were either mentally challenged or were in a feeble state of mind and have been working as bonded labourers with farmers in border villages of Punjab,” the home ministry had said.

The government added that these labourers were hired by human traffickers on the promise of a good pay. “But after reaching Punjab, they are exploited, paid poorly and meted out inhuman treatment,” the home ministry had said. “For making them work for long hours in fields, these labourers are often given drugs, which adversely affect their physical and mental condition. BSF has been handing over the rescued persons to State Police for further necessary action.”

On Sunday, the Punjab chief minister called the letter a “bundle of lies”, according to PTI. “An analysis of the whole episode reveals that highly sensitive information pertaining to national security regarding the arrest of some suspicious persons, apprehended by the Border Security Force (BSF) from close to the volatile Indo-Pak border, has been unscrupulously twisted on baseless conjectures to malign and tarnish the farmer community,” Singh said, according to PTI.

Also read: Farm labourers in Punjab drugged, exploited, alleges Centre, farmer leaders criticise letter

The Punjab chief minister alleged that the contents of the home ministry’s letter were selectively leaked to the media without waiting for a response from his government.

Singh claimed that there was a discrepancy between the reports submitted by the BSF and the Centre’s letter. “It is not the job of the BSF to investigate such matters, and they are only responsible for detaining any person found to be roaming along the border in suspicious circumstances, and handing them over to the local police,” Singh added.

The Punjab chief minister said that all the 58 cases flagged by the Centre were thoroughly investigated. “Nothing on record suggests that they were forcibly infused drugs to keep them working for long hours, and moreover, it is incorrect to conclude that the intellectual disability of these persons is drug induced,” he added, according to PTI.

On Saturday, the home ministry had denied a link between the letter and the farmers’ agitation. “Some news reports have juxtaposed the letter in a totally unrelated context to conclude that MHA has framed grave charges against Punjab farmers and has also connected this with ongoing farmers’ agitation,” it said. “The letter clearly and only states that human trafficking syndicates hire such labourers and they are exploited.”

The government added: “No motive can be ascribed to a letter issued by MHA to a particular state or states as this is part of routine communication over law and order issues.”

The farmers’ protest

Thousands of farmers have camped outside Delhi since November, demanding that the Centre repeal the three laws that open up the country’s agriculture markets to private companies. Farmers fear the policies will make them vulnerable to corporate exploitation and would dismantle the minimum support price regime.

The protest had been peaceful until violence broke out during the farmers’ tractor rally in Delhi on January 26. One person was killed and over 300 police officers injured as a section of protestors broke through barricades and poured into Delhi, clashing with the police who tried to push them back with tear gas and batons.

The police clamped down on the protests after the violence. Heavy barricading was done at protest sites and internet services were suspended. Police complaints were filed against farmer leaders and journalists, and hundreds of protestors were arrested.

The farmers have hunkered down with supplies that they say will last them for months, and have resolved to not leave until their demands are met. In January, the Supreme Court had suspended the implementation of the farm laws until further orders.