The shadow of narco-terrorism
Wedged between the two largest illicit opium producing areas – the Golden Crescent and the Golden Triangle – India has long been a major transit point in the international drug trade.
Along the border with Pakistan, Jammu and Kashmir and the Punjab are particularly vulnerable, with sophisticated technologies such as drones increasingly used for drug trafficking.
The territory of the Union of J&K and Punjab has seen significant seizures of narcotics in recent years, especially high-value drugs such as heroin.
This growing drug trade is the latest threat in Jammu and Kashmir, which has seen more than three decades of cross-border terrorism.
After the takeover of Afghanistan by the Taliban, there are now fears of an upsurge in drug trafficking. A report by the Special Inspector General for the Reconstruction of Afghanistan in 2018 estimated that the Taliban derived 60% of their income from drug trafficking.
The latest United Nations World Drug Report estimated that in 2020 Afghanistan had an area of 2.24 lakh hectares devoted to the cultivation of opium, which represents more than 75% of the illicit cultivation of opium in the world.
It is this opium which enters India, via Pakistan.
A senior police officer in Kashmir said that after the serious crackdown by law enforcement against hawala operators in recent years, Pakistani agencies have used cross-border trade and narcotics to fund terrorism and unrest in the valley.
In 2019, the Ministry of the Interior (MHA) cited “the flow of illegal weapons, narcotics and counterfeit currency” as the reasons for the closure of inter-LoC trade.
“When the LoC cross-trade was closed, the narco-trade appeared to have become the exclusive channel for financing terrorism,” the officer revealed.
Some of those arrested in the drug trade appear to be linked to terrorist groups such as Lashkar-e-Taiba and Hizb-ul-Mujahideen.
While no specific financial trail linking drug trafficking and terrorist groups has so far been established in court, investigations into some cases by J&K police and the National Investigation Agency (NIA) indicate that the money generated by the smuggling of heroin is used to finance terrorist activities.
In April last year, the NIA arrested a bank manager, Afaq Ahmad Wani, from Handwara in northern Kashmir.
About 21 kg of heroin and more than Rs 1.35 crore cash were seized from the drug union of which he was a member. The total cache would have been well over Rs 200 crore. J&K police said the drug ring worked for LeT.
Police raids have also uncovered a cash counting machine – typically used in banks – which indicates the enormous amount of money changing hands in this narco-terrorist network.
According to MHA data, in 2015, a total of 72.07 kg of heroin was seized from J&K.
In 2019, J&K police data shows more than 200 kg of heroin were seized. Last year 152 kg of heroin and 49 kg of brown sugar were confiscated in different parts of the Union territory.
In 2015, law enforcement arrested 708 people involved in drug trafficking in J&K, which rose to 1,672 people in 2020.
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As early as July 2018, then J&K police chief Sesh Pal Vaid called drugs “a bigger challenge” than terrorism in the region. His successor, Dilbagh Singh, echoed more or less the same sentiment.
“Narcotics are the biggest challenge after terrorism. It keeps terrorism alive (by funding it) and second, it destroys the youth, ”Singh said.
Appreciating the seriousness of the problem, the J&K government set up an Anti-Narcotics Task Force (ANTF) last year to address the emerging threat of narco-terrorism in the region. But despite sustained campaigns, heroin abuse has reached alarming levels in the valley.
The extent of the problem can be assessed from admissions to the Drug Addiction Rehabilitation Center (DDC) at Government Medical College in Srinagar. More than 95% of the 6,234 patients admitted here during the lockdown (April 2020 to June 2021) were heroin users.
“The number of people seeking treatment for heroin abuse is just the tip of the iceberg. The ease of access to heroin is one of the main reasons for the sharp increase in these cases over the past two or three years, ”said Dr Yasir Rather, head of the DDC in Srinagar.
Dr Arshid Hussain, professor of psychiatry at GMC Srinagar, is among the first doctors in Kashmir to work on drug addiction.
He said that even when the subcontinent was struggling with an opioid boom in the 1980s, Kashmir had largely remained drug-free.
According to him, before 2015 there were hardly any heroin users in the state. “Medicinal opioids, cannabis, shoe polish and corrective fluids were used as drugs and most addicts then had dark pasts, were affected by violence and came from a particular socio-economic background,” said the Dr Hussain at DH.
But cases of heroin addiction among young people, especially those from wealthy families, have exploded since 2018.
“Now there are educated people, including children of government officials, who are heroin addicts,” he said.
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Effect on youth
One such case is that of Bilal Ahmad (name changed), a young professional from Pulwama, who worked for a multinational in Gurugram.
Ahmad’s date with drugs began in 2013, while pursuing an MBA in Delhi. He was introduced to heroin in 2018 when he returned home to Kashmir for a two week vacation.
“Some of my childhood friends had started abusing heroin and they gave me the first two doses for free. The first time I inhaled it and the second time it was injected into my veins, ”Ahmad, who was recently taken to a drug treatment center in Srinagar by his parents, told DH.
By 2019, Ahmad had become a regular user and lost his job in the process. He said that was when he got a call from an old acquaintance, who had joined the activists.
“He offered me Rs 2 lakh for delivering a kg of heroin to Shopian. I accepted, ”Ahmad said.
“At the address where I delivered the package, I was given Rs 18 lakh, which I gave to my activist friend. He then gave me Rs 2 lakh as a reward, ”Ahmad said. “After a few weeks, the activist was killed during a meeting with the security forces.”
Ahmad’s parents became suspicious after the Covid-19 lockdown in March of last year. Yet he continued to use heroin until last month, when his parents finally admitted him to the Srinagar drug rehabilitation center.
Manzoor Dar, 27, from Baramulla district in northern Kashmir, has a similar story. He was introduced to medicinal opioids while pursuing a B.Tech course at a private college in Punjab in 2014.
Since both of her parents were middle-ranking civil servants, Dar says money was never an issue.
“I would make different excuses to my parents for more money. Then, one day in September 2017, a friend of mine gave me a dose of heroin. As I inhaled it, I felt like I was in heaven, ”said Dar, who is accompanied by her mother to the drug rehab center.
Dar too had landed a job with a multinational in Mumbai but had to quit after a year because of her drug use.
When asked where he gets the heroin, Dar said: “I used to go to the border areas of Baramulla on my bicycle where it is readily available. They are cheaper there compared to towns and villages.
Dar added that in her neighborhood alone there were at least 20 young people who used heroin.
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Drug trafficking in Punjab
In the Punjab, most of the drug smuggling takes place along the state’s 545 km long border with Pakistan with the active collusion of locals.
In addition to drugs smuggled across the border, the influx of heroin from Jammu and Kashmir, as evidenced by recent drug trafficking cases, is also causing concern to police and police agencies. Punjab Police Department. And there was little improvement after the change of government in the state.
Under Congress, which came to power with the promise to eradicate drug trafficking, heroin seizures reached 2,089 kg, with 46,273 recorded cases.
In the 51-month period until 2017, when the last Akali Dal-BJP combined government was in power, the state seized 1,683 kg of heroin and 46,273 cases were registered under of the NDPS law.
In Gujarat, officials from the state security agencies and police say the state has always been viewed as a transit point for drug trafficking from Pakistan and Afghanistan.
This was also indicated by the recent record seizure of 3,000 kg of heroin at the port of Mundra in the state by the Directorate of Tax Intelligence. This is the largest drug seizure in Gujarat since 2017, when 1,500 kg of heroin were
seized by the coast guard.
Officials said that from Gujarat, shipments are transported to various parts of the country, from where they are smuggled to Europe and elsewhere.
Officials also said the volume of smuggling through sea routes (from Afghanistan to the port of Bandar Abbas in Iran to the coast of Gujarat) has increased over the past two years due to increased security. at the international border between India and Pakistan following terrorist attacks.
“The smugglers are trying very hard, but even the sea route may not be viable for them because they have lost so many manpower. Smugglers may not be worried about their shipments being seized. But it is the number of their men who are frequently arrested that we believe could hit them hard, ”said an ATS official.
A senior Kashmiri police officer said heroin was entering J&K from Pakistan and Afghanistan “because drug traffickers have an extensive network from the Line of Control to the mainland, which also extends across India “.
(With contributions from Gautam Dheer in Chandigarh and Satish Jha in Ahmedabad)