Even as the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) fights a battle against the arrest of its Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal in Delhi, its government in Punjab, led by Bhagwant Mann, has come under a fierce attack in Punjab over a hooch tragedy that has claimed 20 lives till now. The tragedy took place in Mann’s home turf of Sangrur district.

The unfortunate timing, just before the onset of Lok Sabha polls has fuelled the shrill attack on the Mann government, and is likely to grow in the coming days.

On Wednesday three daily wage workers from Gujjran village in Dirba area died in their sleep reportedly after consuming locally distilled alcohol. Thereafter the death count has been on the rise, with casualties being reported from Tibbi Ravidaspura and Dhandoli Khurd villages in Dirba and Sunam blocks.

After being under fire from the Opposition since Wednesday, Chief Minister Mann met the families of the deceased on Sunday and shared his condolences. He said everyone involved in selling illicit liquor will be caught and booked under section 302 of the Indian Penal Code so that they can get severe punishment under the law.

Saying that the villagers are his family, Mann claimed that the previous CMs did not come to the village and used to “lock the gates of their palaces from inside”. Now the people have locked such CMs out.

Some boys present at the spot told Mann about drugs being distributed there. The CM said the government will not spare those who are destroying people's homes. Mann said that “the killers of innocent people will not be spared as these are not deaths but murders”.

According to news reports the Election Commission of India (ECI) has also sought a detailed reply from the Punjab government in the matter. The National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) has also taken cognisance of the tragedy.

In a statement late on Saturday night, the Punjab Police stated that the spurious liquor was found to be methanol. The dangerous chemical is used in industrial products, and was reportedly procured by the accused from a Noida-based factory meant for industrial use.

Additional Director General of Police (ADGP) (Law and Order) Gurinder Singh Dhillon who is heading the Special Investigation Team (SIT) investigating the matter said two masterminds, identified as Gurlal Singh of village Ubhawal in Sangrur and Harmanpreet Singh of village Taipur in Patiala, have been arrested. Also arrested were six other accomplices. There are 10 accused in three different FIRs registered in the matter at Dirba, Sunam and Cheema. Both the masterminds have criminal history and met each other while at Sangrur Jail.

The other six arrested were identified as, Manpreet Singh and Sukhwinder Singh of Gujjran village in Dirba; Soma Kaur, Rahul and Pardeep Singh of Chauwas in Cheema; and Arshdeep Singh of Rogla village. Police have also recovered 200 litres of methanol chemicals, empty liquor bottles, bottle caps, equipment used for manufacturing and labelling spurious liquor.

Dhillon said that accused Harmanpreet, after procuring methanol from the Noida based factory, prepared the spurious liquor at his home. He sold it after packing it in liquor bottles and pasting the label of liquor brand ‘SHAHI’— written in Hindi on it. The accused prepared brand labels using a printer at home, and had procured the bottle cap installation machine from Ludhiana.

The masterminds were using a local contact, Manpreet Singh, to sell the spurious liquor. “The accused was targeting labour class people to sell the spurious liquor at half the price,” Dhillon added.

The ADGP said that the Police have papers regarding the procurement of this fatal chemical and have added Section 120-B of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) to investigate the role of factories from where they procured the methanol. The accused persons had procured a total of 300 litres of methanol chemical.

He added that the Police have also invoked the stringent section 61-A of the Excise Act in all the three FIRs. This, once proven, is punishable with imprisonment for life, or death penalty. Dhillon has appealed to the residents of affected as well as nearby villages to refrain from consuming liquor purchased from unauthorised sources.

The issue is bound to echo in the political arena in the ensuing election season. Senior Congress leader and leader of opposition in Punjab state assembly Partap Singh Bajwa while attacking Mann in a tweet on Friday mentioned, “However, CM @BhagwantMann & Excise Minister @HarpalCheemaMLA are busy protesting against the arrest of @AamAadmiParty Supremo @ArvindKejriwal.

“The insensitive attitude of the Punjab CM can be gauged from the fact that he still has not issued a statement on the deaths in Dirba caused by illicit liquor. It shows that the CM has grown a thick skin. The @AAPPunjab govt should lodge an FIR against those who supplied contaminated liquor.”

Dirba which is the ‘epicentre’ of the tragedy is the constituency of state’s excise and taxation minister Harpal Singh Cheema.

The state Congress president Amarinder Singh Raja Warring after visiting the victims at a hospital said that liquor mafia has direct patronage of the state government and there is no fear of law in their minds.

Shiromani Akali Dal (Badal) has asked Mann why he has not taken the resignation of excise minister Cheema in the case. Party spokesperson Arshdeep Singh Kler said that Mann was on record to have said at the time of the Tarn Taran hooch tragedy of 2020 that the excise minister should resign immediately and that a murder case should be registered against the perpetrators.

“Forget taking these necessary actions, including the resignation of excise minister Harpal Cheema, the chief minister has not found the time to visit the 21 families whose near and dear ones have fallen victim to spurious liquor.

“It is condemnable that instead of comforting the victim families of his home district, the chief minister is busy indulging in a ‘tamasha’ in Delhi to please Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal. It seems saving Kejriwal is more important for the chief minister and his ministerial colleagues than the welfare of Punjabis,” he said.

The state Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) chief Sunil Jakhar too had carried out a scathing attack on Mann on Thursday saying in a tweet, “While Rome was burning Nero was playing flute ! Following in the footsteps of Nero, Bhagwant Mann ji is singing tappas while people in own constituency Sangrur are dying of illicit liquor.” He was referring to a video doing the rounds on social media wherein Mann was seen travelling with Bollywood singer Sukhvinder Singh and singing in the car.

In response, the AAP accused Jakhar of ‘doing low level politics’. “It is unfortunate that he is politicising the death of people due to spurious liquor. The police have already arrested the accused in that case and the AAP government is ensuring the strictest action in this case,” the party said.

Cheema said that the government is “with the families in this time of grief”. He added that those responsible for these deaths will not be spared. He told the media that the government has also formed a committee to probe the deaths.

Meanwhile, the Mann government is also being attacked by the opposition for having followed the excise policy implemented in Delhi. Jakhar has sought an enforcement directorate probe into the matter. A BJP delegation has already made a representation to the Election Commission in the matter.

The Akali spokesperson Kler also said that Mann should explain why the Punjab government had followed the same excise policy as that of Delhi and given benefits to the same set of liquor contractors.