The white pillars that mark the international border between India and Pakistan stand bright in the fog, mute witness to the drug smuggling, and now terror, route to Punjab. Beyond the pillars, the mustard crop is in bloom in Pakistan, while the lush wheat fields provide the winter backdrop on the Indian side. A fortnight after the Pathankot terror attack on the airbase, a visit to Punjab’s border villages reveals a deceptive calm but disturbing truth that the enemy lurks within.
On the surface, it’s difficult to miss the prosperity that families of farmers in Punjab’s border villages have seen over the past 15 years. Landholdings may have shrunk but trucks parked outside houses in villages located just a shout away from the border speak volumes about the easy money narcotic smuggling has brought.
The high number of drug addicts in these villages also reveals the misfortune that has befallen their residents.
Once into smuggling cloth material, opium and later gold from Pakistan, crossing the unfenced, and unguarded, border was like venturing into the neighbourhood for these families. In the past decade, however, they have taken to smuggling heroin. The contraband is smuggled from Afghanistan and Pakistan into India via J&K, Rajasthan and Punjab. A major part of the consignment is passed through Punjab, while some quantity of heroin is sold in the local market by couriers. The smuggling has been going on unchecked as it’s done with the tacit understanding of Punjab Police and politicians, at different levels, coupled with the lack of a modern surveillance system and inadequately deployed Border Security Force (BSF).
Now its just that Pakistan has begun pushing in terror with the narcotics, the Pathankot attack being the latest fallout.
‘EVERYONE IS A SUSPECT HERE’
Smuggling has is virtually a lucrative cottage industry in Punjab’s border belt. Despite the rising risks, villagers admit, it has helped build fortunes. The signs of prosperity are visible in villages such as Mahwa, Daoke, Naushera Dhalla, Havelian, Mehndipur and Rajatal.
But drug addicts can also be spotted easily. “Border villagers are into smuggling and the youth are in the grip of drugs. Everyone is a suspect here,” says Amandeep Singh of Mehndipur village, in the Khemkaran sector, surrounded on three sides by Pakistan.
TOO CLOSE FOR COMFORT
About 2 km from Mehndipur is Sehajrai village of Pakistan, considered the hotbed of heroin smugglers due to its proximity with the border. Border villagers own farm land across the barbed fence up to the pillars. They grow wheat and paddy in the fertile stretch on the Indian side, while their Pakistani counterparts plough land right up to the pillars.
At many places from Fazilka to Pathankot, the border criss-crosses in such a manner that the Pakistani farmers’ land is 50 metres from the Indian fence. Pushing heroin in small-sized packets is then just a throw away. There have been instances of police and BSF recovering Pakistani mobile phone SIM cards from Indian couriers. The border villages receive signals of Pakistan’s cellular networks such as Mobilink and Ofone.
When the crop is tall and ripe on both sides of the Radcliffe line, the border pillars are not visible. This is an advantage for Pakistani smugglers, who can easily hide amid wheat or paddy crop while venturing into Indian fields to push the poison into Punjab. And, there is no dearth of takers. “Before the border was fenced, Indian villagers could simply walk into villages in Pakistan that are a kilometre away,” says Labh Singh, 80, of Naushera Dhalla village. A former opium smuggler, he broke down and said with regret: “My son was into smuggling and was caught with fake currency and arms. He died in jail.”
“Police and politicians encourage drug smuggling. Police harass the innocent. I have been detained many a time unnecessarily,” claims Suba Singh, a former sarpanch of Rajatal village, infamous for smugglers, even as another villager Kundan Singh, 90, reminds the former about his shady past.
Now, every family that owns farms across the fence is seen as a potential heroin smuggler in the garb of a farmer. This stigma doesn’t ruffle many. Smuggling, many admit, flows in their blood.
That’s one of the enormous challenges the BSF faces while guarding the 553-km border of Punjab. “The BSF ‘kisan (farmer) guards’ accompany peasants to their land across the fence. Many a time, we have recovered heroin hidden in farm appliances. It is not easy when you have to watch anti-national activities of those whom you are protecting,” says a senior BSF officer.