The jails and their mismanagement in Punjab have earned enough disrepute by now to have become a major poll issue. From jail breaks to politically connected inmates having a field day, Punjab and its people have seen it all over the last one year.
The latest episode to have hit the headlines is the Shiromani Akali Dal's (SAD) former halqa (constituency) in-charge Shiv Lal Doda holding a political meeting inside Fazilka jail on the day polls were announced for the state. Doda, a liquor baron with political aspirations, is in prison in connection with the murder of a Dalit youth Bhim Tank in 2015.
It was following a raid by the election machinery that 25 people including some Akali leaders including Abohar halqa in-charge Ashok Ahuja along with assistant jail superintendent Jashandeep Singh were reportedly booked besides the impounding of seven luxury cars reportedly used by the accused to travel to the jail and Rs 3.48 lakh in cash.
Reports suggest that the meeting had been called to discuss the strategy for Doda's contesting the forthcoming polls from Abohar. He had unsuccessfully contested the last polls from the same seat as an independent, losing to Congress heavyweight Sunil Jakhar.
Popular by his nickname 'Sholly', Doda is among those booked for the brutal murder of 27-year-old Bhim Tank at his farmhouse in Abohar.
While the state administration has transferred Doda to the Central jail at Amritsar, the issue has provided the Congress and Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) enough explosive material to last the 28 days of poll campaign that are left.
Congress on the offensive
Even as Sunil Jakhar described Fazilka jail as an extension of deputy chief minister Sukhbir Badal's Sukhvillas Resort for criminals, Punjab Congress president Captain Amarinder Singh came out promising to expose and punish the Badals in both the recent Nabha jail break case and the Fazilka jail episode.
Amarinder said the Fazilka incident has exposed the nexus between the Badals and the criminals in the state. As it is the state is said to be under the grip of total lawlessness, with as many as 52 armed gangs on the loose, as per the admission of the state Director General of Police (DGP) Suresh Arora.
Jakhar went on to submit a memorandum on the issue on behalf of the Congress to Chief Electoral Officer VK Singh on Friday. He said the Badal government is still influencing the probe into the incident and is soft peddling the case. "The police are trying to save the culprits by distorting facts and are lying that the meeting was held in the superintendent's office," he claimed.
In its memorandum, the Congress has demanded conduct of the Assembly elections under President's Rule to prevent any interference or disturbance in the poll process, besides handing over of the investigation into the case to a central agency.
Complementing Singh on successfully reining in the 'Akali patronised goons', Jakhar said that the Badal government had failed to check the spread of goondaism in the state over the past 10 years.
He said the incident has exposed the ruling SAD's nefarious links with criminals and gangsters in Punjab, and once again shown that free and fair elections in the state are not possible under the Badals.
Alleging that the entry in jail records showed complicity of higher-ups, Jakhar asked why the murder accused and Sukhbir's 'henchman' Doda's name is not mentioned in the FIR. He demanded that the jail superintendent's statement be made public and call records of the concerned deputy commissioner and the deputy superintendent of police be made public to find out how many times Sukhbir had called and intervened since the raid started.
The Congress has raised the apprehension that the meeting in the jail premises was held to plan large-scale disruption during the elections.
Jakhar pointed to the photographs of the raid that showed that Doda was being provided all modern facilities, including air conditioner, radiator, bed, carpet etc in the prison.
The Congress leadership has asked why the prison officials were merely suspended and not arrested for violation of various laws and why no action has been taken against the criminals involved in the incident.
They said the incident assumes significance in the light of the recent Nabha jail break where five gangsters had escaped from the high-security prison and not one has been re-arrested.
Amarinder said the incident endorsed the suspicions he had expressed in the wake of the Nabha jail break about involvement of the Badals and their associates in that incident and also proved that Sukhbir, and other Akali leaders working at his behest, were running a prison mafia in the state. He pointed out that all the five gangsters who escaped from Nabha belonged to Sukhbir's constituency Jalalabad and none of them had been arrested despite the police crackdown in the wake of the incident.
Accusing the SAD-BJP government for the mounting atrocities on Dalits and shielding the culprits AAP convener Gurpreet Singh Waraich said that the Fazilka jail incident exposes the SAD's patronage of criminals. He said that Sukhbir Badal had tried to protect Doda in the Bhim Tank murder case and the latter was booked only after Dalits protested on streets.
Recently a 72-year-old Dalit woman Gurdev Kaur was killed in Jhaloor village in Sangrur following a clash over a piece of Panchayat land reserved for Dalits.
Waraich said that in Mansa, the Dalit daily wagers were beaten up at the behest of SAD MP Balwinder Singh Bhunder. They had gone to see Bhundar for their salary dues from the forest department. Claiming that the Punjab Scheduled Caste Commission is flooded with complaints of atrocities against Dalits, Waraich said that in 2015, the commission had registered 7709 complaints of atrocities. He accused the Akalis of unleashing terror on Dalits just like the BJP is doing in Gujarat.
Party in-charge for Punjab Sanjay Singh said, ""The Election Commission of India must keep a tab on Akali leaders meeting criminals in jails as they can use criminals to terrorise voters during elections." He said the news of Akali leaders from Abohar meeting Doda in Fazilka jail is an eye opener for the authorities particularly as Doda was openly holding a Sangat Darshan programme inside the jail while the officers under pressure from the Badals were avoiding taking action against him.
Before the Nabha jail break, the prisons in Punjab had made headlines when there were reports that the prison inmates were posting updates and pictures on social media in the wake of the killing of a gangster from Fazilka in Himachal Pradesh earlier this year.
The gangster who was assassinated was Jaswinder Singh Bhullar alias Rocky and was reportedly a former associate of Doda.