On June 11, 2020, police arrested Syed Iftikhar Andrabi, a 50-year-old employee of the Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) rural development department, and two of his associates for alleged drug smuggling. Police said they recovered 21 kilograms of heroin, estimated to be worth Rs 100 crore, and Rs 1.34 crore cash in Handwara in north Kashmir’s Kupwara district.
Andrabi, a block-level worker in Handwara, amassed a huge fortune over two decades. He drew suspicion with his frequent trips to the remote Tangdhar area along the Line of Control (LoC) in Kupwara as well as Punjab. He even visited the Pakistan side, according to officials familiar with the matter. The case is now under the jurisdiction of the National Investigation Agency (NIA).
According to multiple officials who spoke on condition of anonymity, narcotics smuggling is rampant in the militancy-hit region with a part of the profit channelled to fund separatist activities. They added that the modules were designed in a way that made it difficult for officials to reach the masterminds commanding huge networks and having links across multiple countries.
On March 3, 2021, Romesh Kumar, an assistant sub-inspector of the Border Security Force in his late 30s, was arrested for alleged links with drug traffickers in the same case. Besides, three more people were taken in custody on March 1. Subsequently on March 12, officials recovered Rs 91 lakh cash hidden in a field in J&K’s Samba district.
And before that, in 2018, Andrabi’s son-in-law, Abdul Moomin Peer, a resident of Waskura area in Handwara, was arrested for alleged possession of about 25 kilograms of heroin. He was released last year, but got involved in drug trafficking again. In June, he was caught with two kilograms of heroin and Rs 20 lakh cash in his car, according to a police official familiar with the case. Peer has been arrested a second time.
“We had been keeping a watch on him and arrested his relatives…the network was found to be spanning across 10 countries,” said the official quoted above.
The modus operandi
Security agencies maintain strict vigil to stop drug smuggling into India from Pakistan, but it becomes a challenge for them to keep a close watch round the clock along the entire 740-km LoC owing to the difficult terrain of the area.
Then there are villages that are on the Indian side, but fall outside fences authorities have erected on the border. These villages have iron gates on the Indian side that help security officials monitor entry and exit of visitors. But, from the Pakistan side, there is an easy access to these villages.
The villages of Tadh and Amrohi in Karnah (Kupwara district) and Churunda in Uri (Baramulla) are among such porous villages.
“It is where handlers sitting across cast their net. They lure people from these villages into drug trafficking with huge chunks of money. The possibility of getting rich overnight is too tempting. Their familiarity with the terrain also helps them,” said a second police official.
Another official added that several people acting as informers in border areas ended up getting involved in drug trafficking. “They play double agents. More often, they end up doing job of the other side. Around 20 such people have been booked under UAPA. Some even have relatives in militant organisations,” said the third official, referring to the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act.
After a courier with a drug consignment enters the Indian side, it is delivered to another courier, then another, and another, until it reaches India’s metropolitan cities.
“It is a world where one courier doesn’t know another courier… Only directions (for identification) are passed by their masters: such as the number of the vehicle, colour of the vehicle, shoe colour, clothes colour etc.,” said a fourth official.
This official said the masterminds were often hidden behind a series of anonymous links and a carefully crafted smokescreen.
Police have also found drugs in cars from villages near LoC. “Imagine getting lakhs of rupees for a trip from Tangdhar to Kupwara (about 80 km apart) that costs just few hundred rupees,” said a fifth official. “The drugs are hidden inside headlights, seats…space is created in cabs to carry the drugs in such a way that it is difficult to find them.”
At times, along with drugs, an odd weapon or ammunition is also smuggled into India. “These drug couriers don’t have any ideology or affiliation. They do it for money,” said the official quoted above.
Just ahead of the District Development Council (DDC) elections in J&K late last year, nearly six kilograms of cocaine was seized from Baramulla. “It is understandable that the opium belts of Afghanistan and Pakistan are in close proximity to Kashmir…However, cocaine in Kashmir is something strange,” said another police official posted in Baramulla.
The Golden Crescent region of South Asia, which includes Afghanistan and Pakistan and is known for opium production and distribution, makes J&K vulnerable to the menace.
Also, in north Kashmir, cannabis grows in Trumkhabehak forests in Kupwara in the Diwar-Lolab mountain range. “People enjoying political patronage have divided government land among themselves. They have created their own cannabis fiefdoms. They along with their families put up in hutments in the mountains during summer…they also take their herds for grazing, while they real aim is to indulge in cannabis harvesting,” the official added, pointing to the problems at home.
There have also been some instances of drug smuggling under the garb of cross-border trade, which was paused last year in the wake of India-Pakistan tensions over New Delhi’s move to end J&K’s special status. In 2014, heroin in 44 packets worth Rs 500 crore was seized, while 66 kilograms of heroin were confiscated in 2017 when Indian officials in Uri’s Salamabad found the white powder leaking from Pakistani suits, in which it was hidden.
While a ceasefire between India and Pakistan in February-end have meant there is a respite from the shrill gunfire and deadly mortars, officials see no let-up in drug smuggling that happens throughout the year — even in harsh winters.
“Ceasefire or not, this illegal trade of narcotics will continue. It is easy for people sitting in Pakistan to support separatist activities here,” said an official from the J&K Police’s Crime Branch.
“A person sitting across has to spend some Rs 20 lakh to purchase one kilogram of heroin from neighbouring Afghanistan. That consignment is worth over Rs 100 crore on this side. In wake of…it becomes easy to send heroin across through smugglers and then channelise the money back through different routes…A part of the earned profit is also used to fan separatist activities,” said the official.
The police department constituted a special anti-narcotics task force in May 2020, with the unit registering 10 first information reports (FIRs) in less than a year across J&K. “We have recovered mostly heroin, a drug which in less quantity is easy to carry and can earn one crores of rupees. Each consignment we have seized is worth Rs 3-4 crores,” said an official of the unit, requesting anonymity.