Saturday, February 26, 2000
M A I N   F E A T U R E

Samjhauta Express

On a dangerous track
By Varinder Walia and Ashok Sethi

‘Let the train run’

EH mohabbat di gaddi hai, is nu band na hon dena (This is a train of love and emotions, don’t let it stop) is how Allah Ditta, driver of the Samjhauta Express, sums up in chaste Punjabi the significance of this bi-weekly train which runs between India and Pakistan.

Photo by Nirmal SinghThe train binds not only the people of these two countries who were separated after Partition, but reaches out to the people of Afghanistan as well.

The sentiments of Allah Ditta were echoed by millions of Muslims who manage to maintain personal contact with their blood relations living across the Radcliff Line through this Samjhauta Express. The bi-weekly train is the only rail link between the two countries.

  Indian and Pakistani traders unanimously support the sentiments expressed by a majority of their countrymen and feel the need to strengthen cultural and trade ties. They maintain that the train link should never be snapped, whatever be the provocation.

The road link was opened up to facilitate the transfer of a large population in 1947. However, it was the starting of the train services in the early fifties between Lahore and Amritsar, en route to Delhi, that had helped to ease tension and normalise relations while becoming a convenient carrier for both men and materials.

Introduced between Lahore and Amritsar in September 1975, Samjhauta Express is going to celebrate its silver jubilee run next year. It was interrupted for a fortnight in the aftermath of Operation Bluestar in 1984 and, later, during the Babri Masjid demolition at Ayodhya in December 1992.

The historic Simla Agreement of 1972 between the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and her Pakistani counterpart Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto had covered many bilateral protocols, including the establishment of a rail link. The Samjhauta Express earned its name from the Simla Agreement and became a possibility as both the nations, after prolonged parleys, decided to open the rail route in 1975 for both passengers and cargo.

The smooth run of train services had to encounter many hiccups as the Indian Railways were reluctant to provide passenger coaches and wagons for the Samjhuata Express. The reason was that the Indian Railways had lost a large number of wagons and bogeys during the 1965 war. Pakistan had confiscated property of the Railways worth crores of rupees. The rigid stand taken by Indian Railways led to a mutual agreement that both the countries would provide an equal number of coaches for the train through an agreement. The Samjhauta Express made its maiden journey on September 22, 1975.

Innocent and poor people are being used to bring in large amounts of counterfeit Indian currency. According to rough estimates, more than 1 crore Muslims have been carried by the train during its run. Besides, a large number of Sikh jathas have used it regularly to visit the historic Dehra Sahib and Panja Sahib gurdwaras in Pakistan. Visiting Lahore for Baisakhi and for observing the death anniversary of Maharaja Ranjit Singh was also facilitated.

It was actually a daily train plying between Amritsar and Lahore but the demolition of Babri Masjid in December 1992 provoked rowdy elements in Lahore to damage the train. It forced the Indian Railways to curtail its daily service to a bi-weekly one.

The direct interference of Pakistan and ISI in the internal affairs of India by stepping up arms’ supplies to Punjab militant groups from across the border in the early eighties, led the Indian government to go for fencing of its entire 532 km-long border. It was an attempt to seal shipment of sophisticated weapons and explosives.

Due strict vigilance and fencing of the border, the ISI operators turned their eye on the Samjhauta Express. They used it to send small arms, RDX, gold and narcotics.

The Indian security agencies and the Customs personnel were shocked to discover that Indian coaches, forming a part of the train, were being used to cleverly conceal the contraband. It was being placed either in the compartments or underneath the bogeys in a bid to deceive the Indian Customs authorities.

The serious move of the ISI was foiled by vigilant Indian security agencies in 1995 and the government decided to curtail its run to Amritsar. The decision was taken to terminate the train at its last rail terminus, Attari, itself. According to yet another decision, only Pakistan railways wagons would form the Samjhauta Express and no Indian passenger coaches would be allowed to go to Lahore. Goods wagons were exempted.

This action promptly sent the message to Pakistan that all their attempts to create trouble in this country would be countered effectively. However, after the Kargil misadventure, army coup in Pakistan and the recent hijacking, the ISI once again attempted to misuse the Samjhauta Express. This once again brought notoriety to this train of friendship and goodwill as innocent and poor people were used during the last two months to bring in large amounts of counterfeit Indian currency.

A total of Rs 3.80 lakh of fake Indian currency was seized by the Attari rail Customs. Besides Rs 1.73 lakh of genuine currency was also recovered last week.

Indian security personnel maintain a round-the-clock vigil on the Indo-Pak borderThe Indian Customs and security agencies have started hundred per cent checking and frisking. This is the first such checking ever done by the Customs in wake of the attempt to destabilise the Indian economy. This has led to scrapping of the standard citizens’ charter of privileges adopted by the Indian Customs for extending courtesy to foreign travellers.

As a part of unprecedented checking, the Custom officials have to resort to breaking toys, ripping open bags and thoroughly examining any suspicious item being imported from Pakistan. Such checking invariably earns the wrath of the passengers. Even the movement of coolies has been curtailed at the Attari railway station. They are not allowed to operate on platform number two — known as ‘P2’ (Amritsar end). They can go to platform number three (the Lahore end) where passengers and goods can reach after clearing all the Customs and Intelligence formalities.

Intelligence agencies have reported that the passengers who have been overstaying in India even after the completion of their visas could be behind the fake currency racket. However, screening of such persons is a difficult task.

The votaries of Indo-Pak relations feel that the train should not be discontinued. Any such decision would send a wrong signal that a sovereign state has failed to check about 3000 persons, who travel between India and Pakistan every week, properly. The Prime Minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee, had launched his bus diplomacy about an year ago as a goodwill gesture and the stopping of the Samjhauta Express would undo the Indian effort to have better relations with Pakistan.

Insiders say that instead of snapping rail or road links, the Government of India should resort to screening of officials of all sister agencies working at the Attari station who may be hand-in-glove with those working at the behest of the ISI.

Such illegal activities, like smuggling of narcotics and fake currency, could not have been possible without the patronage of officials. Those who carry out the illegal activities thereby endangering the security of the country use code words like Sawari (couriers) etc. The sawaris operate between India and Pakistan on fake passports and smuggle ‘prohibited items’ between both the countries. The mushrooming of Chor Bazaar or Landa Baazar opposite the Amritsar railway station was the result of the introduction of Samjhauta Express. The passengers ,including those who go to Pakistan on the pretext of a pilgrimage, would sell the imported items in such bazaars.


‘Let the train run’

SAMJHAUTA EXPRESS, the train of "love and emotions", has been the harbinger of prosperity for hundreds of small and medium scale importers and exporters from both India and Pakistan. Formal trade ties were established between the two countries in 1975 under the Simla Agreement. Indian exporters vied with the South-East Asian, American and European business communities to sell an array of items ranging from iron and steel ingots, timber, refrigerators, scooters, cement and tyres, besides traditional goods like spices, tea, fresh vegetables, textiles, electrical and electronic goods.

Photo by Nirmal SinghMore than 173 items were listed for trade between the countries. With Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto in the saddle in Pakistan, the trade ties between the two countries flourished. However, after the army coup, General Zia-ul-Haq made stringent laws to curb Indian trade.

When Benazir Bhutto took over as Prime Minister in the early 80s, the focus again shifted to India and, later under the SAARC Agreement, trade once again looked up. India granted Pakistan the "most favoured nation" status but Pakistan did not make a reciprocal gesture. The euphoria over open trade died down soon after as the fundamentalist elements in Pakistan objected to the free movement of commodities.

The last three years have seen an upsurge in trade with the listing of sugar under the OGL (open general licence) to meet the shortfall in its production. India imported sugar in huge quantities during 1998-99, besides dry dates and rock salt and exported soya meal feed, ginger, cardamom, spices, tyres and cement.

Indian traders feel that they had been able to forge a feeling of trust and faith with their counterparts in Pakistan. The traders here felt that as Samjhauta express was the only link to Lahore and other destinations, this train was their only hope. They all favoured the continuation of the train service and suggested that the police and the Customs should step up their vigil and foil the bid of some mischievous elements to snap the link that is beneficial to the people as well as business.