Through a friend who closely works with Indian mission in the interests of the NRI community, I came to know of the plight of thousands of Indian citizens both men and women who are locked up in dark cells for inadvertently carrying drugs in either their checked-in baggage or hand baggage, a criminal and non-bailable offence in some ports of destination.
There is this harrowing story of a 22 year old engineering graduate girl from Bangalore who was also playing for a band during weekends, having found placement with an IT company on campus interview. Life could not get rosier than that for the happy-go-lucky girl until one day her world turned upside down. Little did she know that the guitar handed over to her by her troupe member would send her to the gaol for a lifetime when she traveled to an Arab country to give a stage performance. In the musical instrument was found a cache of marijuana, legal in most parts of the world but that which is illegal in India and that which can get you a death sentence in Arab countries. Pretty and peppy and the only darling daughter of her well placed parents, the young woman was apprehended on her arrival at the capital of the arab country when the sniffer dogs zeroed in on the guitar that she was carrying for her best male friend and lead guitarist of their band. The intervention of the Indian govt stopped the bright girl from going to the gallows awarding her a life sentence. Refused even a phone call to her parents, legal counseling, and thrown into solitary cell, force-fed beef (being a vegetarian from birth), there has been no news on the girl ever since. The hapless parents reportedly were running from pillar to post to secure the release of their precious daughter, in vain. This is one of the many heartwrenching stories that the social worker for Indian community shared with me.
European countries like Denmark, Finland, the Netherlands and especially the Scandinavians go easy on dope. Most of the narcotics that are legally prohibited in other parts of the world are deemed legal in these countries. Restriction of any kind is against human rights for these most liberal societies where the right to choose lies with the individual. Availability of/access to most of these scheduled drugs in Asian countries is next to impossible. If at all one can lay his/her hand on these prohibited drugs, it has to be by illegal means supplied through black markets. Of course, the undercover always exists but the costs could be prohibitive. Singapore is a nation where strict death penalty is imposed on anyone found with banned drugs notified by the nation. No trial as a matter of fact for the accused and the campaign by the foreign missions to secure their convicted citizens caught redhanded with prohibited drugs is actively discouraged. Many rural Indian citizens who were used as ‘kuruvi’ (messenger) to carry drugs unaware, by smugglers and drug mafia have ended up hanging by the end of the rope, with the appeals of the normally-prevailing Indian government dismissed or turned down without a second thought. In this scenario imagine a Singapore* (name of the nation changed) citizen landing in Amsterdam for a PG diploma. Clean until his 22nd year after having served his mandatory stint in national defence, this boy found himself enthralled by the liberties that Holland permitted. Peer pressure is another reason. Sudden financial independence working for the road side cafes to pay for tuition fee/dorm could be a major factor. Asian parents are also mostly highly ignorant by themselves when it comes to narcotics, having no idea what it is about. Two years went by when the young man lived like Roman in Rome, smoking up whatever he fancied, popping the pill, taking to the needle whenever he felt like to get his high. Returning home proved to be his nemesis. Unable to cope up with depression in the dry country and unable to come out of his new found addiction, the boy jumped to his death from a highrise. His parents are yet to come out of the tragedy. In Amsterdam, the young man lived his life ‘legally’. ‘Substance’ obviously is subsidized in these European countries. Local kids growing up in these mature societies face none of the psychological dilemmas that Asian children going there for higher education face. So its all the more prudent for the parents to do a thorough research on the host countries where they may want to send their wards for higher education. A masters degree aspirant is still young and vulnerable enough to take to addictions. When you are in free-for-all terrain all is well when it goes well. Hell breaks loose when the graduates have to return to their home countries someday where none of the substances may be available in open market.
There is normally some education on the prohibitive drugs to be carried into countries that we all have. Something as simple and naive as ‘khus khus’ which any Indian kitchen cannot be without, can land someone from India in death row if carried into Arab airports. Cough syrups are a big no-no. There is a list of scheduled drugs including pain killers that are restricted in many foreign countries. But a spice as innocuous as the khus-khus (that is supposedly seed for opium) (that a good ninetynine percent of Indians are unaware of!) could prove to be so damaging is not comprehensible to most Indian travelers, especially blue collar workers who have neither attitude nor the understanding to contemplate the consequences resulting from their casual and thoughtless actions. Someone who carried powerful painkillers for a cancer patient also found themselves on the wrong side of law in the Arab country where they landed.
The friend affirmed that similar is the statistic of foreign nationals behind bars even in India with no hope of release. The conditions of the Indian prison scene need not have to be enumerated. From basic sanitation to food quality, the standards can be shocking to any international traveler, and why even fellow Indian citizens.
Nations must come to a treaty on how to handle the cases where individuals find themselves on the wrong side of law without their knowledge. Establishing justice can prove to be very difficult on these grounds. Yet, after coming to know of the Bangalore girl, I am totally shaken as to how on a single flight/day our destiny can turn for worse without a warning. Indian government or for that matter, any foreign government has no jurisdiction in foreign courts. And generally, the countries that have stringent laws on substances and narcotics do not allow trial and hand out death penalty unanimously unfettered by the appealing nations. The Amsterdam case can happen to any family. We all send our children abroad for better education and for brighter future. The seemingly ultra liberal societies are dangerous for Indian kids/Asian kids who may not be mentally mature to come to grips with the freedom allowed when it comes to consumption of narcotics in these European countries where even Euthanasia (death by choice/assisted death), nude beaches etc., are order of the day. Age for consensual sex is as low as twelve for children in these countries. So whose responsibility is it when it comes to defining the legal parameters or licence allowed for substance use or abuse where it concerns foreign citizens.
The law governing the narcotics (ab)use by foreign nationals remains ambiguous in most countries. Arab countries are beyond the point of coming to a pact with rest of the world in this one matter. Yet, contrabrand is freely available in ever single Arab country and recently a royal Arab was found dead on drug overdose. Who is the world’s largest opium cultivator. Islamic countries are not exactly lagging behind when it comes to drug menace. Much of their news never makes to international headlines. Indian government too has to create a cell to deal with nations on case-to-case basis and help with the release of unfortunate citizens who may find themselves caught in quagmire in all innocence. Our embassies and high commissions are overworked. Yet this is one area that our foreign missions must focus on. Lastly when parents are to send their wards for higher education to liberal first world countries where drug prevalence is rampant and legal, they have to educate their children and advise caution. There are so many avenues that the Indian government keeps to be working on. Substance/narcotic cases must be accorded top priority. Entering a bilateral agreement with individual nations can be considered. Is it not double standards when allegedly you may find every single substance in, for instance, Dubai, when for the criminal offence of someone carrying substance must be hanged without trial in the Emirates. Nations do have to come to consensus on narcotics cases because, thousands of international citizens reportedly are languishing in dark cells right across the globe for inadvertently carrying banned drugs.