The SAD Truth about Punjab


The SAD Truth about Punjab

Illustration: Saachi Mehta/ Arré

“If you can’t say ‘fuck’ you can’t say, ‘fuck the government.’”

This critique of censorship by American stand-up comic Lenny Bruce sounds like the organising principle of India’s meddling, infantilising, and often infuriating censor board. Earlier this week, the Central Board For Film Certification as it is officially known, decided to go all Edward Scissorhands on Abhishek Chaubey’s upcoming film Udta Punjab, which features a story set smack in the middle of the state’s growing drug crisis. The board has verbally demanded 89 cuts from the film, including expletives and visuals of drug use, besides asking the film-makers to remove all references to Punjab, politics, and elections from the film. By the end of this process, I assume, so little of the film will be left that we’d be better off staying at home listening to Mann Ki Baat.

The board’s chairman Pahlaj Nihalani defended the cuts by saying that the film shows all Punjabis in a negative light. Of course, Mr Nihalani speaks from a deep love for the land of plenty. Vocal criticism of the film that comes from the state’s ruling party, Shiromani Akali Dal, and the fact that the SAD-BJP combine is facing a difficult election next January had nothing to do with the board’s decision. Mr Nihalani – who late last year made this cringe-worthy bit of NaMo propaganda – would never let political pressure sway his judgement. No sirree.

Meanwhile, in one of the delicious little ironies that make life in India so entertaining, Bollywood has taken some time off from calling for Tanmay Bhat’s head, to call out the CBFC for infringing on freedom of expression. The film’s producer, Anurag Kashyap (who claimed ignorance when asked about the Bhat issue), said the CBFC chairman was treating the board “like his North Korea” and compared the whole ordeal to Kafka’s The Trial.

But as entertaining as this little merry-go-round of hypocrisy is, the real issues at hand here are much murkier than a self-serving film industry and an incompetent censor board. To start with, the drug crisis that Udta Punjab attempts to highlight is a reality that is hard to contest. An AIIMS study has found that Punjabis spend ₹7,500 crore on drugs, of which ₹6,500 crore are spent on heroin alone. A staggering 2.3 lakh people are dependent on opioids, of which 1.23 lakh are addicted to heroin.

In a 2009 submission to the Punjab and Haryana High Court, secretary of the department of social security and women and child development, Harjit Singh, said that more than two-thirds of the state’s rural households have at least one drug addict. These figures may be even higher in 2016. Private – and often illegal – de-addiction centres have popped up all over the state, and over 3.3 lakh addicts were registered for treatment in Punjab in just the last six months of 2014.

The social devastation drug addiction has caused in Punjab is hard to capture in numbers and statistics. In 1999, the Tribune shone a spotlight on the issue by writing about Amritsar’s Maqboolpura, “the colony of widows”, where 30 people had died due to drugs in three years. This isn’t an isolated story. Today, Punjab is full of Maqboolpuras, villages and neighbourhoods whose men get hooked to narcotics and over-the-counter pharmaceuticals, and whose families struggle to deal with the fallout.

There are many theories for Punjab’s descent into drug dependency, including the lack of skilled jobs for educated, aspirational youth who no longer want to tend farms, deep-rooted cultures of consumption and masculinity, and Pakistani plots to flood the state with heroin from over the border. But almost everyone agrees that part of the blame lies with the state’s inability to take on the organised drug cartels. All of which Udta Punjab is rumoured to cast an eye on.

If Udta Punjab is even half as honest a film as it claims to be, this is the Punjab that it will show us, one where the youth are either lost to drugs and despair, or are slowly stewing in their anger at the state government.

Successive governments over years have turned a blind eye to this imminent crisis. Stung by allegations of inaction, the Parkash Singh Badal government, which has reigned over the state for close to a decade, finally sprung into action in 2014 with a massive drive against drug dealers. They only needed to look at the famous American War On Drugs campaign, to realise the futility of such a short-sighted initiative. Just like their American counterparts, Badal’s war only resulted in thousands of users and small-time peddlers languishing in jail even as the drug trade continues to flourish. In 2016, 30 per cent of Punjab’s inmates are in jail on drug charges, but the prisons they’re locked up in are still awash with drugs.

Many believe that this state of affairs is a result not just of government inaction, but of complicity. In a Governance Now column from May 2015, former DGP (Prisons) and AAP member Shashi Kant Sharma argued that drug profits finance election campaigns and supplement the incomes of Punjab’s powerful elite. Ministers or local leaders associated with the SAD have been implicated in a number of drug scandals. To make matters worse, Punjab’s political parties – including the Congress – have no qualms handing out drugs and liquor to secure vote banks. A week before the 2012 legislative assembly elections in the state, EC officials had impounded 2,641 kilos of poppy husk, 10 kilos of opium, 2.4 kilos of heroin, and 3 lakh capsules meant to be electoral bribes. It’s obvious that at the heart of Punjab’s drug problem is a nexus of narco-businessmen, politicians, and police that benefits too much from the drug trade to allow any real progress in tackling it.

Concurrent with – and contributing to – the drug problem is a larger crisis that has engulfed Punjab in the last decade: A potent combination of economic stagnation, unemployed youth, and farmer distress. The Green Revolution has left Punjab with thousands of educated and semi-educated youth who no longer want to work tilling the land – which Udta Punjab references in the apparently objectionable line, “Punjab di zameen banjar aur aulad kanjar hai.”

Those who want to work are hampered by the poor state of Punjab’s education system which leaves people unqualified to get the few high-skilled jobs that exist, and too overqualified and aspirational to go back to agricultural work. Farmers with smaller landholdings have the biggest problems. With negative growth rates and increasingly fragmented landholdings, small farmers in Punjab are selling off their land or renting it out for small sums to make ends meet. Debts are rising, as are farmer suicides, and climate change is all set to make things worse.

For those who want to give up farming, there are no alternative industries offering jobs. Revenues are dropping, as what small industry exists is fleeing the state. Government healthcare is in terrible shape in the villages, with patients having to travel to the city for any serious treatment, while pollution, drug use, and possible exposure to pesticides have increased the incidence of lethal illnesses such as cancer. The picture is bleak.

If Udta Punjab is even half as honest a film as it claims to be, this is the Punjab that it will show us, one where the youth are either lost to drugs and despair, or are slowly stewing in their anger at the state government. And that’s understandably not something the SAD wants its electorate to see in the 2017 election. All the efforts of the SAD-BJP combine in Punjab to get its vote bank together – from getting the centre to pass a bill to ban Sehajdhari Sikhs from voting in SGPC elections to denotifying the land acquired for the Sutlej Yamuna Link canal – could count for nothing if the drug crisis becomes the election’s dominant issue.

In this context, the censorship of Udta Punjab takes on a different light. It’s no longer just the story of a conservative and hilariously hypocritical, censor chief over-reaching his authority. It’s not just a message to Indian filmmakers that realism and speaking truth to power have no place in Indian cinema. It’s about the subversion of a supposedly independent state machinery to brush an electorally inconvenient reality under the carpet. It’s about the needs of a political party or alliance being put ahead of the freedom to tell the truth. The truth, of course, would be anti-national.