Punjab’s Nasha Roko Committees: the anti-drug lords

In the southern Malwa region of Punjab, a vigilante wave is sweeping through villages to tackle the decade-old drug problem that is debilitating the State. Abhinay Lakshman meets the groups involved, fuelled by the cult of one man and the fear of a youth-force crippled by addiction

Updated - September 01, 2023 10:47 am IST

Published - September 01, 2023 03:24 am IST

Nasha Roko Committee members at Ghuman Kalan village in Punjab.

Nasha Roko Committee members at Ghuman Kalan village in Punjab. | Photo Credit: SHIV KUMAR PUSHPAKAR

In the 47 days since the arrest of Parwinder Singh ‘Jhota’, 36, a sit-in has been in progress on the premises of the Mansa district administration complex. About 15 to 20 people show up each day to join the handful camping here. They are supported every couple of weeks by a few thousands who come in from across Punjab’s southern Malwa region. Organised by the Nasha Roko Committees (NRCs) that have sprung across the area to fight the drug problem that is rampant across the State, they are joined by a few farmer unions. This is their way of registering a protest against Parwinder’s arrest and to show their lack of faith in the police and the government to rein in the drug problem.

Parwinder was a star athlete in school and college. He got the name Jhota, meaning bull, as a State-level boxer, though he also dabbled in cricket. He started using chitta, a heroin-based opioid, the first time he went to jail for a street fight. He quit in 2015 after a friend died from an overdose in front of him, a needle still in his arm.

The National Crime Records Bureau’s Accidental Death report showed that Punjab had 78 deaths from narcotics abuse in 2021. The State registered 127 deaths, the second-highest in the country, due to illicit substances or spurious liquor that year.

In early April this year, shaken by seeing children shooting up in a local park, Parwinder, now claiming to be clean, reached out to Punjab Kisan Union leader Sukhdarshan Singh Nato, who was also his neighbour. With his help, he started the ‘Nasha roko, rozgaar do’ (stop addiction, provide employment) campaign.

The NRCs — each village has its own — have been set up organically over the last four months as informal initiatives to stop the use and sale of drugs. Districts like Bathinda, Mansa, Sangrur, and Faridkot, all south of the Sutlej river, use their networks to monitor their villages. Each committee has anywhere from 12 people to the whole village involved. They track spots that addicts frequent, raid chemists they suspect are selling drugs, set up night-watch duties shared by volunteers, and even force their way into homes they feel chitta is being sold out of.

Twenty of Punjab’s 22 districts now figure in the Union government’s list of 372 districts most affected by substance abuse across India. In March this year, the Health Minister of Punjab, Balbir Singh, told the Assembly that the State had 8.74 lakh people in government-run and private de-addiction centres for substance abuse.

A protest against the arrest of anti-drug campaigner Parwinder Singh ‘Jhota’ on the premises of the Mansa district administration complex.

A protest against the arrest of anti-drug campaigner Parwinder Singh ‘Jhota’ on the premises of the Mansa district administration complex. | Photo Credit: SHIV KUMAR PUSHPAKAR

The watchmen

It is 1 a.m. About 10-15 men in their 20s position themselves at key intersections leading into Ghuman Kalan village in Bathinda district. Armed with swords, sticks, and smartphones, they have a shift until sunrise. Through the night, they will check and search any ‘suspicious’ vehicle or person coming their way. “We check any vehicle from outside the village,” says Rajendra Singh, a member of the drug vigilante squad. “If they are high, we see it in their eyes,” he says, but also, “When people smoke the chitta off the foil paper, they use a rolled-up currency note to inhale the smoke. When we search them, we look for currency notes that are rolled up or blackened,” the farmer in his early 30s explains enthusiastically.

“If we find anyone who is an addict or a peddler, we gather around them and try to explain to them what they are doing is wrong. When they don’t listen to us, we give them 10 minutes of seva (community service),” Jakhsir Singh of the committee in Ghuman Kalan says, chuckling along with the others. Seva, which forms the bedrock on which the Sikh faith is founded, usually means an activity like serving food in a gurdwara. Here, it means that they are roughed up. Then, they call the police.

Chitta is not the only substance abused in Punjab. There is also the prescription-only pharma drug, pregabalin, usually used in capsule form to treat chronic pain and opioid addiction in de-addiction centres. It is street-named ‘signature’, after one of the companies that manufactures it legally. In fact, the approved drug, in 75 mg doses, is available in government de-addiction centres under the Pradhan Mantri Bhartiya Jan Aushadhi Pariyojana. As a result, it is not under the schedule of banned substances under the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act, 1985, making it a challenge for the police.

This is where the committees ‘step in’. They conduct ‘sting operations’ on chemists selling ‘signature’. They live-stream these ‘raids’ on social media, publicly humiliating the people behind the counter and the addict. The videos have views in the thousands. The committees have no government sanction to do this, but villagers feel the police are both inactive and complicit. “We have no other option. Everything we are doing the police are capable of doing, but are not. At least now, we can keep an eye on our village,” says Lucky Dhillon, 22, the youngest member of Ghuman Kalan’s NRC, who records the committee’s activities and puts them up on his Instagram account. “All of this started with one man: Parwinder Singh ‘Jhota’,” he announces grandly.

A poster of Parwinder Singh ‘Jhota’.

A poster of Parwinder Singh ‘Jhota’. | Photo Credit: SHIV KUMAR PUSHPAKAR

The cult of ‘Jhota’

“Parwinder was a tall, strapping boy. During his college days, he got into a lot of fights. He started doing drugs in jail,” Bhim Singh, Parwinder’s father, a former Army man, says. “One day, he came to me and said he was done. He locked himself in his room for a week to deal with the withdrawals. He would have fevers, keep screaming, vomit. But he made it.” Once he quit, after about eight years, he got married and had two children, both under 10 now. So when he saw the children in the park, something hit him.

“In April, he came to me. He said that he wanted to do something to stop the drug menace in Punjab. I asked him if he was clean first and if he could promise to remain that way. He was so sure of himself,” Nato, the Punjab Kisan Union leader, says. He had known Parwinder even as a boy.

Punjab Kisan Union leader Sukhdarshan Singh Nato.

Punjab Kisan Union leader Sukhdarshan Singh Nato. | Photo Credit: SHIV KUMAR PUSHPAKAR

From the get-go, Pawinder chose to conduct ‘stings’ and began to template it, says Nato. On April 22, he got a boy to buy capsules from Sanjay Medical Store in Mansa for ₹400, and caught it on camera. He returned to the store with the drugs and told the pharmacist to stop selling them, taking back the ₹400. The video went viral and Parwinder won significant support. It also became the cause for the first of four FIRs against him over four months. The Mansa police booked him for ‘extorting’ ₹400 from the pharmacist.

With the FIR only bringing more support to Parwinder, he continued visiting villages and stopping at locations across Mansa district where he knew drugs were sold. Videos of him confronting addicts and alleged peddlers started going viral and every village he would visit would open an NRC — often on the very day he would visit, like the one in Ghuman Kalan.

“He kept meeting senior police officers in Mansa district and they kept asking him to stop,” Parwinder’s lawyer, Lakhwinder Singh Lakhanpal, says. “They told him it was not his job; Parwinder kept asking them to do theirs properly. He had also given them a list of places he knew drugs were sold.”

On July 15, the Mansa police arrested Parwinder when a mob that he was not a part of initially ‘raided’ another chemist in the town. They garlanded the pharmacist with shoes on suspicion of selling capsules.

His popularity had peaked so much that the news of his arrest evoked strong criticism of the State government from Opposition parties such as the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Congress. In addition, the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee, the politically powerful representative body of the Sikhs, appreciated his work and condemned his arrest.

Nasha Roko Committee member Seera Dhillon from Mansa’s Joga village.

Nasha Roko Committee member Seera Dhillon from Mansa’s Joga village. | Photo Credit: SHIV KUMAR PUSHPAKAR

Hit and miss

The movement kicked off by Parwinder’s campaign has also given fresh impetus to activists like Seera Dhillon, 25. He has been doing the same work at his village, Joga, in Mansa district for a couple of years now. “Jhota’s work is great, and we are with him. It is clear that the police are involved, otherwise why would they have a problem with us cleaning up our villages?” Seera says. Sitting under the shade of trees next to his 4.5-acre farm currently sprouting with paddy, he talks about getting addicts in Joga to quit. He, like all other NRC members, believes they are also disrupting the supply chain by catching peddlers.

Police officers at the Joga police station are not so sure. They say that most people being caught by NRCs are addicts, not peddlers. In a year-long anti-drug operation that ended in June this year, the Punjab police had arrested over 14,000 drug smugglers and seized over 1,100 kg of heroin. But out of the over 11,000 FIRs registered, only 11% were for commercial quantities. Only 250 gm or above of heroin is considered a commercial quantity under the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act.

“The people caught by the Nasha Roko Committees are all repeat offenders. They are addicts who usually have 5-10 gm [chitta] on them. They will sell a part of it for their next fix and then use the rest. We cannot classify them as peddlers. At most we register the case and release them on bond, because the amount is too little,” says a senior officer at the Joga police station.

Another officer at the police station, which oversees 15 villages, says, “We are in touch with the committees in all the villages. Our focus is on telling them that they should call us first. They should not be taking the law into their own hands. We promise to act promptly.”

Despite insisting that whoever they catch is a peddler, members of Ghuman Kalan’s NRC say the biggest ‘seizure’ they have made in their two months of existence has been a packet containing 20 gm of chitta. Unapologetic about working in the realm of vigilantism, Seera says, “We need not be doing this if the police did it. Children are dying with needles in their arms. So, if my work helps people come out of it, I’ll keep doing it.” He talks about several young men who have joined him on his mission after quitting drugs.

Gaggu Singh, 24, is one such member of Seera’s committee, who is inspired in equal measure by Parwinder and Seera. “I started doing drugs when I was 16. We used to spend at least ₹3,000 on chitta every day. Two years ago, I saw one of my friends overdose and die in front of me. That shook me. It was around that time that Seera found me and helped me quit,” he says. He now works as a plumber and helps the NRC.

Members of the NRCs are confident about the impact of intervention. Not so much the ‘elders’ in villages like Joga. Lounging under a banyan in the village, panchayat member Butta Singh, says, “The committee is there, but what power does it have? They don’t consult with us. They are not recognised by us. Whoever they catch, goes back to doing drugs. Children will go to the next district, get high and come back.”

A substance abuse study conducted in 2018-19 by the National Drug Dependence Treatment Centre, AIIMS, Delhi, says that Punjab has the second-highest number of people across the country that need help with opioid (heroin is a kind of opioid) addiction: an estimated 7.2 lakh.

While the NRCs may not understand the problem at a macro level, they do know of its impact on individuals. “Every day that Parwinder spends in jail, more and more Nasha Roko Committees are coming up,” says Seera. Regardless of whether the administration is sympathetic or antagonistic towards them, they will persevere.

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