My First – and Last – Drug Run

True Crime

My First – and Last – Drug Run

Illustration: Akshita Monga

Baccha Pait Mein Zinda Hai.

These five words – “Baccha Pait Mein Zinda Hai” or the child is alive in the womb – were supposed to be Sarita Bahadur’s passport to a new life. The ₹8,000 that she was going to earn from smuggling charas into Bahraich, Uttar Pradesh, across the porous Indo-Nepal border, would ensure her two young sons would go to better schools. The last few months had been difficult for the 27-year-old: Her husband, a daily-wage labourer, had been out of work. Their house, a single-room tenement without a toilet or a kitchen in Daang district, was crumbling.

So when a local dealer approached her to smuggle contraband in a special jacket, Sarita did not have to think twice about what she was going to do.

Dealers and drug lords prowl villages along the Indo-Nepal border, looking for vulnerable women like Sarita. They are paid small sums to act as mules, and go into areas such as Tulsipur, Rupaidiha, Tanakpur, and Pithoragarh, with charas stuffed into tyre tubes and lining their underclothes. From Bahraich, the drugs usually land up in cities and towns like Lucknow, Patna, and Gorakhpur. The missions are fraught with danger because the contraband has to be smuggled under the noses of the Sashastra Seema Bal commandants who man the border.

But for people like Sarita, a life of poverty is far worse than the danger of being captured.

Sarita underwent a week-long training programme with her handlers and eight other carriers. There, she was coached in how to hold her own in case the mission went awry. She was told how to answer if she were stopped by security personnel. She was taught the secret code “Baccha Pait Mein Zinda Hai” and knew that she was supposed to hand over the contraband only if the customer uttered the same words: If the man on the other side did not give the password, the deal would come unstuck and she was to return immediately.

What Sarita was not told, however, was the possible consequences of what would happen if she were to be apprehended.

Five years on, now 32, the slim and dusky Sarita, is still at the Bahraich jail awaiting her trial.

In the days prior to the assigned date, Sarita stitched a jacket out of an old trouser that used to belong to her husband, lining it with a number of pockets on the breast and back. She handed over the jacket to her handlers, who returned it with five kilos of charas stuffed inside. The jacket was accompanied by an advance of ₹5,000 in advance – the remainder ₹3,000 would be paid after the delivery of the consignment.

On that fateful day in September 2012, Sarita hired a rickshaw to go to the Devkure station, to board a bus to Rupaidiha border. The bus halted at the Jamunaha border post for a routine check – and Sarita was arrested. By evening, she had landed in Bahraich District Jail.

Five years on, now 32, the slim and dusky Sarita, is still at the Bahraich jail awaiting her trial. In the last five years, she has made no contact with her family, even though the jail helps illiterate undertrials write letters home. Her husband has not visited her, most likely because he fears getting arrested too, and she has not so much as laid eyes on her young sons. But Sarita is confident that she will be able to secure her release on her own, even though she cannot afford a lawyer. She is waiting for the system to give up on her.

Sarita shares a small cell with four other inmates – the jail has a total of 18 other Nepalese women, all of whom have been picked up on the same charge. Like every other inmate, Sarita wakes up at 6 am, and spends her time stitching, learning to read and write, and praying for her release. Five years later, she is full of regret for the decision.

“When I set out from home that day, my heart was pounding,” she tells us. “I knew something bad was about to happen.” Sarita remembers clutching her husband’s arm, and he told her there was still time to back out from the deal. But Sarita was determined for the sake of her children. “They must be all grown up by now – the elder one would have turned 13, and the younger 10. And I am in jail, what could be more unfortunate.”

Even as Sarita’s days pass in her tiny room, the peddlers, the overlords, the mafiosos, and the system that enabled her to smuggle the drug into the country, continue without pause. Sarita and women like her are the smallest, most insignificant pawns in the game. For the local forces, apprehending people like Sarita is easy as soup – and gives the authorities and the media the illusion that the drug trade is being disassembled. In reality, they are merely “cannon fodder”, as this story on female drug mules in Argentina, explains.

“These women in detention are not big drug traffickers,” says Maria Santos, who works at Argentina’s National Prison Attorney Office, in the original article. “Inside the trafficking chains, women are in the most vulnerable positions… Men occupy the highest levels, and women are exposed to the judicial system.” The same article also carries a Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) report, which states, “Even though [the female mules] bear the brunt of punitive policies, these women are seldom a true threat for society. Their imprisonment does little or nothing to dismantle illegal drug markets and to improve public security.”

And so Sarita, languishes in jail too, even as her handlers go about scot-free. Sarita is unsure where her case stands or how she should go about getting a lawyer. Trapped in a deadly vortex of poverty and a callous system, where she is just another faceless woman without an identity, she does not know how many more years she will have to spend in jail. She has not given up yet – but she is aware that desperation and hopelessness can break the strongest backs. After all, hers has broken once before.