Inside a Booming Black Market for Heroin in the Shadow of the Himalayas

Srinagar, KASHMIR – Javed has been looking over his shoulder more often than he'd like. A 100-strong anti-narcotics police task force was formed in his conflict-ridden state last year. Since then, drug peddlers like him have been busted seemingly every week.

But they haven’t arrested Javed yet. Since he was a teenager, he has been dealing drugs in Srinagar, the largest city in Jammu and Kashmir. The region used to be India’s only autonomous Muslim-majority state, but it was recently brought under New Delhi’s direct control. Both India and Pakistan claim it as their territory, and they have fought three major wars over it. As political turmoil plunged his region into one conflict after another over the last decade, Javed has seen growing demand for his products.

“Decades ago, drug consumption was low, but since 2010, after the protests and killings, I saw more and more people turn towards drugs,” Javed told VICE World News. “It started from cannabis to prescription meds until it got people entangled in what has now clearly become a drug war.” For safety and privacy reasons, Javed’s name has been changed in this story.

“Decades ago, drug consumption was low, but since 2010, after the protests and killings, I saw more and more people turn towards drugs.”

The increase in drug use in Kashmir is perhaps reflected in the dramatic growth in the number of patients at one of its main drug treatment centres, from 489 in 2016 to more than 5,000 today. According to the United Nations Drug Control Programme, one in a hundred people in the Kashmir Valley, which has a population of 7 million, are addicted to drugs. The Indian government is in the process of setting up eight new addiction treatment centres. 

drugs, Kashmir, conflict, military, India

A man is sniffing heroin on a chocolate wrapper in Srinagar, Kashmir. Photo: Mir Yasir Mukhtar

Born in the world’s most highly militarised zone, where 700,000 Indian troops remain stationed, Javed risks his life to trade and sell the deadliest drug of them all: heroin. Now in his mid-twenties, he is also a husband and father to three daughters. Only his wife and his customers know how he makes a living.

A contested land, Kashmir has erupted in violence repeatedly over the past three decades. Civilian killings are common amid anti-India protests and an armed insurgency that was met with the full force of the second-largest army in the world. In 2020, 65 civilians were killed “extra-judicially,” according to the Legal Forum for Oppressed Voices of Kashmir, an organisation that defends the human rights of Kashmiris.

Divided among India, Pakistan and China, the Himalayan territory sees frequent curfews, military operations, and the longest internet blackouts in the world. The Indian-administered territory of Jammu and Kashmir has a young population – 65 percent are below 35 years – and a quarter of college graduates are jobless, a figure that is double India’s average.

“There is no work for us left in Kashmir because the educated people are themselves jobless. So what can I expect from a government that just thinks of their own selves?” Javed said.

As the conflict rages on, drug dealers have found opportunities to profit from the resulting economic crisis and despair.

“If you know the art of talking at state checkpoints, you can easily trade drugs,” Javed said. 

drugs, Kashmir, conflict, military, India

Indian paramilitary troopers check a vehicle during a random search in Srinagar on Nov. 10, 2021. Photo: TAUSEEF MUSTAFA / AFP

But it isn’t easy, and India’s drug laws are tough on possession of “commercial quantities” of drugs. Someone found with more than 100 grams on their person could end up in jail for 20 years. Javed often carries 40 times that amount. 

“If you know the art of talking at state checkpoints, you can easily trade drugs.”

“Once, I drove some 66 kilometres to bring 4 kilograms of heroin stored in my kid’s bag. As I reached near a checkpoint, the police already had a tip against me and a cop pointed his finger towards me. My legs started to shiver, but I managed to escape.”

Most drug dealers in Kashmir including Javed gained an opportunity in the pandemic to deal and smuggle drugs from other areas of the valley. 

“The last two years have given rise to [addictions] all over the valley at a ratio of 7:10,” Javed said. “That means 70 percent of the young population has been addicted to drugs, which, as a result, has lifted sales in both smuggling and dealing drugs all over the valley.”

In August 2019, the Indian government revoked the special autonomy of Jammu and Kashmir, and the subsequent COVID-19 pandemic prompted lockdowns that made it difficult for the Jammu and Kashmir Police to raid homes in search of drug dealers. The dealers then took the opportunity to sell their wares unrestrained, and they introduced heroin to the region. 

According to Javed, he used to sell cannabis until he was introduced to heroin by his dealers. He has seen a surge among young people who take heroin, he said. All it takes is one sniff or jab and they are hooked, adding to his growing list of regular customers. 

“The frequent lockdowns have increased our business, and the past two years have created a shadowy wall which dealers hide behind and easily sell drugs. In the past two years, the Jammu and Kashmir Police couldn't trace or raid our homes because of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Where once Javed used to actively seek out customers, he doesn’t have to anymore. “They come to us,” he said, adding that his customers are usually men between the ages of 13 and 18.

“The frequent lockdowns have increased our business, and the past two years have created a shadowy wall which dealers hide behind and easily sell drugs.”

As the demand for drugs rose, so did production. By the time heroin joined the mix, drug trafficking had increased significantly. 

“There are specific people with a lot of power in the drug trade at the Pakistani, Afghani and Indian borders. The supply chain works through two channels: one, from a main dealer to their sub-dealers, and two, to small peddlers who later sell it in their localities,” Javed said. 

“I never chose this path wilfully, but when you live under such harsh conditions and you need to feed your kin, this is the only option left for someone like me,” he said. Originally a user himself, he started selling drugs on the side at age 15. After he and his wife had their first child, drug dealing became his primary source of income. 

“I am not happy being a dealer. I started off by selling cannabis. As the ongoing political and economic situation is always disruptive, this became an easy way for me to earn money, and I started to acquire quantities that were far more than required. As the trend in drug use went up, my business started to grow with it.”

drugs, Kashmir, conflict, military, India

Used syringes are scattered across this graveyard overlooking Srinagar city, Kashmir. Graveyards have become a hotspot for drugs users at night. Photo: Mir Yasir Mukhtar

In response to the rise in drug sales, authorities assembled an Anti-Narcotics Task Force. 

“Towns such as Bijbehara, Pulwama and Sumbal are hubs of cannabis cultivation and remain under constant raids with destruction of crops. But the dealers have a large network and keep switching routes to create new ones, keeping their supply going,” a member of the task force told VICE World News, on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on the matter.  

Since its establishment, the task force has taken many drug peddlers to court after seizing heroin worth billions of rupees.

Yasir Hassan Rather, a de-addiction psychiatrist at the Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences in Srinagar, said the pervasive use of drugs is a reflection of conflict. On average, an adult living in the Kashmir Valley would witness or experience almost eight traumatic events during their lifetime, according to a survey by Medicines Sans Frontiers. 

drugs, Kashmir, conflict, military, India

Discarded drug paraphernalia in Srinagar, Kashmir. Photo: Mir Yasir Mukhtar

Rather believes the traumas of turmoil have been passed on from one generation to another. 

Sajid Rehman, a school dropout in his 20s, says he had dealt with an addiction to heroin for three years, adding that it all started with peer pressure. An only child, he says he spent around one million rupees ($13,000) and traded in a motor vehicle just to buy heroin. Once, he put a knife to his father’s neck for money. He has since quit.

“I never chose this path wilfully, but when you live under such harsh conditions and you need to feed your kin, this is the only option left for someone like me.”

“The reason for quitting this heroin addiction wasn’t coming from any specific pressure but for medical reasons. Due to the consumption of heroin, I have hepatitis C, and if I hadn’t stopped, I would have died far sooner,” he said.

Javed, too, knows that he must stop soon. At some point, the law would catch up on him. “They might catch me one day, and I worry about my daughters,” he said.

“The reality is drugs lead to one’s life destruction. The tip of the knife is always at my neck, but I risk my life to sell drugs under such hard conditions because I don’t know how to do anything else,” he added. 

Although aware of his trade’s deleterious consequences, Javed feels trapped, unable to find other ways to support his family.

“Hundreds of poor men like me aren’t happy being a drug dealer for the society or even for their family. This is a calamity I have been webbed in, and I can’t escape. I know that I might get caught one day, but until that day, I will be the saviour to my family.”

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