ISALAMABAD - The 49 truck drivers, grizzled men from the mountains of Kashmir, were on a routine job dropping goods across the Line of Control between Pakistan and India when a drugs bust left them stranded.
For more than a week, the men from the Pakistani side of Kashmir, one of the world’s most sensitive faultlines, have been stuck in the middle of a row that reflects the difficulty in boosting regional ties through trade. Last Friday, Indian police along the treacherous mountain road leading between the two sides seized a truck and arrested its driver after 114 kilograms of heroin were found concealed in a consignment of almonds.
Pakistani authorities then refused to let the other trucks in the convoy, or the 48 other drivers, back across the heavily militarised Line of Control unless the arrested man was returned as well.
They also detained 27 Indian trucks and their drivers, who had crossed over on the same day to deliver goods as part of a barter trade agreement that was started as a “confidence-building measure” in 2008. Huddled inside a hall at the Trade Facilitation Centre in Salamabad, 115 kilometres Srinagar, AFP found the Pakistani drivers watching a Bollywood film on cable TV.
“We are becoming a tragic movie ourselves,” said 30-year-old Ahsan Awan from Muzaffarabad, who was wearing an intricately embroidered Sindhi cap and wrapped in a shawl against the winter cold. Under Indian law, smuggling or possessing narcotics is a serious offence that lands an accused in jail without bail.
“We cannot release the driver. We have sent a report to the home ministry in New Delhi,” deputy inspector general of police JP Singh told AFP.
“The case will be decided in our courts or between New Delhi and Islamabad. We have not received any directions from New Delhi yet,” Singh added. Ties between India and Pakistan are languishing at present, neither openly hostile nor noticeably warming, with the current government in Delhi widely expected to change after elections due by May. Border skirmishes last year, in which more than a dozen soldiers died on both sides, chilled relations between the nuclear-armed neighbours, who have fought three wars since 1947. “We are talking with the Pakistan foreign ministry. We are hopeful of finding a diplomatic solution,” Indian foreign ministry spokesman Syed Akbaruddin told reporters on Thursday.
He said he was surprised that trade in Kashmir was being “held hostage for the sake of persons indulging in drug trafficking”. Commercial ties were given a big push in 2012 when both sides were looking to repair the damage of the 2008 Mumbai attacks. A second trade gate was opened south of Kashmir and the number of trucks able to cross daily was increased. New relaxed visa regimes were put in place. Pakistan even said it would grant India “Most Favoured Nation” status, which would give Indian firms greater market access - a change that is still to take effect 12 months after a deadline to complete the process. Prior to this spat, the results were starting to show. Trade between the neighbours jumped 36 percent to $2.6 billion in 2013, according to the Indian Department of Commerce. While the diplomats in New Delhi and Islamabad wrangle over the hold-up in Kashmir, the drivers from the Pakistani side have refused to go home without their colleague.
“We are not allowed to inspect the sealed goods, we just count the number of packs. The authorities on both sides do the checking,” Ahsan Awan said from within the trade centre where all drivers are confined. He said he would “think twice” before agreeing to transport goods across the Line of Control again, for which he earns 1,000 Pakistani rupees ($9.5) a trip.
Theirs is a life of battling severe security restrictions, red tape and long waits on icy mountain roads before the authorities clear them to cross the border.
Their ornate trucks, beautifully hand-painted with red tassels for extra decoration, trundle through steep valleys along the River Jhelum flowing from the Indian side in the Himalayas. “We have not had a bath for a week or changed clothes. We can’t even offer prayers in this condition,” complained driver Hameedullah Awan.