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It's not drugs, it's politics behind censoring Udta Punjab

Gunjeet Sra
Gunjeet SraJun 09, 2016 | 14:34

It's not drugs, it's politics behind censoring Udta Punjab

In December 2010 I travelled to Punjab to do my first reporting assignment. I was told to go and look for the drug problem in the state. A now defunct magazine had done an investigative piece on the bourgeoning drug trade in the area, a matter-of-fact report on the economy of the business and the story was picking up. Based on that, I was commissioned the task of looking at the problem from a sociological perspective.

We started from Chandigarh and mapped our way all across the state in search of dramatic tales of drug addiction. We would often travel early morning, staying in villages throughout the day, and sometimes spending the nights there, depending on the progress.

Initially through the journey, my mind kept referencing Requiem for a Dream and Trainspotting, but as I delved deeper into research, I was forced to confront the uncomfortable truth that real suffering is seldom dramatic. It is ordinary, even banal to a point where the mere act of survival and ignoring it is seen as a major triumph. An act of great rebellion for the self.

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In any city across Punjab, drugs come cheap especially hashish, opium, weed, chitta (smack), heroin.

Punjab’s suffering is such. It is the story of an epidemic that people have learnt to build their lives around. For years the government has known about the problem but failed to address it clearly.

As a result the drug cartels and mafia gangs have gotten stronger and incidents such as the shooting of a local money changer in broad daylight in Jalandhar last week have become extremely common.

Even the police who reported the killing a "hawala money dispute" has not been able to do much about it. Hawala money is the traditional system of transferring money most preferred by South Asian drug lords and mafia. The money is usually paid to an agent who then instructs an associate in the relevant country or area to pay the final recipient.

Yet, the Parkash Singh Badal-led government refuses to acknowledge the problem and has instead stated on record that only "0.06 per cent of Punjab’s population has been found using drugs." This is a blatant lie. The problem is so severe that one in three boys, and one in ten girls in schools have experimented with a drug.

The recent pressure on the filmmakers of Udta Punjab to change the title of the film because it maligns the state is another attempt to disregard the issue that Punjab is a victim of circumstances. If its stories keep getting silenced, there will be little hope left for the state that is already caught between the heady nexus of politicians, mafia and religion.

The problem has become so blatant that anybody who tries to suppress it should be seen as nothing but an accomplice to the issue.

In any city across Punjab, drugs come cheap especially hashish, opium, weed, chitta (smack), heroin. But the cheapest and the most deadly are the prescription drugs as they can be brought at almost every chemist shop.

The rest can be procured if you prod even a little locally. I have encountered children as little as twelve hooked onto prescription drugs in Ludhiana, roaming the streets in broad daylight looking for ways to make petty money for their next fix. Extreme poverty and drug addict parents paint a future full of misery for them, but nobody really cares.

So when the censor board tries to remove the name of the state on which the movie is based and orders 89 cuts, it must be viewed as a political move done to cover the drug nexus that is obviously state-abetted, as it refuses to acknowledge the extent of the problem and genuinely do anything about it.

Don’t forget the fact that the state goes to polls next year. Who is worried about Punjab being shown in poor light? Surely not the government that has failed to launch a successful drug rehabilitation program for its people, and definitely, not the people who live with the reality of it every day.

The golden days of Punjab are long over. In the wake of 1984, there has been fear, despair and a feeling of being wronged by the Indian state. Two generations are now lost, one to 1984 and what happened after; the other to hopelessness and drugs.

With time, farming opportunities have dwindled, land holdings are smaller and prosperity has become a distant dream for many average, small-time farmers who are now back to growing barley from sugarcane, simply because the mills are scarce. Those who can, have fled.

The rich continue getting richer. The middle class struggles and a sense of nothingness has prevailed since. Add to this the many religious and ideological wars between the deras and the Gurudwaras that have left the common people with little options of how to spend their time.

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The Sukhbir Singh Badal-led government refuses to acknowledge Punjab's drug problem.

Caught between the increasing SAD-led religious dogmatism and the godmen of the deras, people seldom associate themselves with activities that occupied their days earlier. The propagation of caste as a key social component to your identity by political parties has segregated the society further into isolation.

It is almost as if the state government is on a long-term project to collapse the total moral and social fibre of the state. There are more alcohol shops than government schools in Punjab. Also, most view the substance as socially acceptable until the situation is out of hand. There is a certain machismo attached to waywardness that is both outdated and juvenile.

In de-addiction camps people tell stories of meeting every afternoon for a cup of opium-laced tea to kill the boredom. They talk of it being a release for their day. Of them wanting to forget life and its worries for a while. Of wanting to stay still and not worry about the future. To top it, the de-addiction centres in the state are in poor conditions, spilling with people and often short-staffed.

The government which used to treat addicts for free now has withdrawn its support and charges at least Rs 1,000 to admit a person. Most addled with the problem are the poor and the lower-middle class, migrants included, who cannot afford the treatment for de-addiction. The ones that can often fall back into the habit once they get back to society because of poor counselling and lack of a pro-active support system that knows what to do in case of a relapse.

The government launched a programme in 2014 against drugs. "We will spare no one," Badal had said at the time. In the last two years the police has arrested 28,661 people for drug possession. An Indian Express report recently exposed these to be sham arrests as most arrested were drug addicts. The drug lords still roam free in fancy cars with security and body guards.

As far as Udta Punjab is concerned, it’s just a movie telling a story that everyone already knows. It is the true, ugly face of Punjab as it is today. Why is the censor board so worried about betraying Punjab?

The truth betrays no one except a liar.

Last updated: June 11, 2016 | 20:43
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