Print edition : October 28, 2016
Panic on border
Haphazard evacuations of hundreds of border villages in Punjab have
adversely affected a large number of farmers, leading to widespread
resentment. By AKSHAY DESHMANE in Ferozepur and Attari (Punjab)
ON the afternoon of September 29, as jubilant television news channels
were reporting the early morning surgical strikes carried out by
India’s special forces across the Line of Control (LoC) on terrorist
launch pads, residents of Paropal village near the famous Attari-Wagah
border were in a state of panic. A small group of Punjab Police
officers visited the village—located literally a stone’s throw away
from the fenced international border with Pakistan—to announce that a
war with the neighbour was imminent and that residents must evacuate
their homes at the earliest.
“Between 12 and 1 p.m., two officers in black commando uniforms and
two in khaki [all of them Punjab Police personnel] came to the
gurdwara and announced that the village would have to be evacuated as
war was likely to start any time. They did not tell us anything else
and walked out,” said Gurbir Singh, a resident of the village who was
apparently present in the gurdwara at the time.
To make matters worse, news channels were also talking of a possible
war after the strikes. “Everybody was sitting in front of the TV,
which was showing news about the surgical strikes, and saying there
could be war. We were not going to run away from the village. The
media drove us out,” he said.
The sarpanch (head) of the village, Gurmeet Singh, recalled the panic
at the time. “Sabne takrav di baat kahi [Everybody (news channels)
talked about a possible war]. This was wrong. We evacuated in a hurry.
We did not have oil, diesel in our vehicles to rush out. So there was
a crowd at the petrol pump. Whatever valuables people could gather
from their homes, like clothes, some [milk-yielding] animals, they did
and then rushed to their relatives’ homes. At least one to two members
from each of the 120 households here were sent out in the first two
days. I sent my wife and daughter to our family friends’ homes,” he
Residents of hundreds of villages located within the 10-kilometre
range of the 553-kilometre international border running along six
districts of Punjab have similar stories to tell. They were hit
adversely by the government’s decision to evacuate villages, which was
apparently taken in anticipation of retaliatory attacks from Pakistan
following the surgical strikes.
The controversial decision was conveyed on the day of the announcement
of the surgical strikes. Home Minister Rajnath Singh reportedly called
up Punjab Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal in the morning and asked
him to evacuate the border villages within 10 km of the international
border. The Punjab government convened an emergency Cabinet meeting
within hours and declared that 987 villages located in the six border
districts of Pathankot, Gurdaspur, Amritsar, Tarn Taran, Ferozepur and
Fazilka would be evacuated. “Camps are being set up. We have made all
arrangements. Though the public will be inconvenienced, we are
ensuring it is minimal. People are being helped in evacuation,” Badal
told reporters after the meeting in Chandigarh.
However, there were few takers in the border villages for Badal’s
attempt at reassuring the local people, as Frontline found after
speaking with residents of more than half a dozen villages in
Ferozepur and Amritsar districts a few days after the evacuations
began. People in most districts had not stayed at the “relief camps”,
choosing instead to stay at their relatives’ homes; mostly women and
children left their homes while the men stayed behind to look after
cattle and standing crops, which needed to be harvested. Certainly,
people’s actual experiences in the days following the evacuations
reflected anything but “minimal inconvenience” that the Chief Minister
had assured them. Asked why the evacuations were handled in such an
inept manner, Additional Chief Secretary (Home) Jagpal Singh Sandhu,
the State’s top official responsible for handling the situation, could
only point fingers at the Centre. “Get in touch with MHA [Ministry of
Home Affairs],” he said curtly in a text message.
Ferozepur district saw the evacuation of 300 villages following the
strikes, the highest in Punjab. In villages close to the Hussainiwala
border in the district, camps had been set up in gurdwaras and
schools. Many of these camps were arranged by non-profit organisations
or gurdwaras. Patiala resident Gurpreet Singh, 23, volunteered with
one such organisation, the United Kingdom-based Khalsa Aid. He said a
team of aid workers arrived on the day of the evacuations and began
serving food. “On the first or second day, as many as 30-40 tractors
could be seen leaving the villages near the Hussainiwala border. They
were carrying beds, trunks, utensils, sewing machines and other such
things. I have seen old photos of Partition-era migrations, and these
evacuations looked like the Partition wave,” he told Frontline.
According to Chiman Singh, a resident of Bakhra village which lies in
the same region, many of those who left either did not know about the
locations of the relief camps or were simply unaware of their
existence, as they were given only about two hours to leave their
homes. “A sub-inspector came around 3 p.m. and told us we had only two
hours to pack our belongings and leave. We panicked,” he said.
Consequently, people’s response to whatever limited government
arrangements existed was poor. A Ferozepur district administration
official said: “Most people have not stayed at the camps. Four days
after the evacuation began, around 500 people could be staying in some
35 camps set up across the district. People are mostly staying with
relatives; they aren’t coming to the government relief camps.” In
Amritsar district, where the Attari-Wagah border is located, the
response to government camps was even poorer. According to a district
administration official, not one camp saw a significant number of
people turning up.
Conversations with local residents revealed more reasons why they felt
they had been left to fend for themselves. Puran Singh, 60, a farmer
of Bakhda village in Ferozepur district, had his family stay in a camp
set up at the Shahid Bhagat Singh gurdwara, although it is decrepit.
“The government camp allocated for our village is at least 30 km away
from our village, while this gurdwara is about 10 km. I stay in my
house mostly to look after the cattle and tend to my standing crops,
while my wife, son and grandchildren stay here. Already, I am spending
Rs.500-600 every day to make multiple trips between home and this
camp. It is not feasible to stay further away,” he said.
When asked if he believed war was likely, Puran Singh said: “We are
tired of this repeated trouble [being caught in the aftermath of wars
and border strikes]. If a war has to happen, let it happen once and
The 60-year-old border resident has reason to be tired. One of his
sons is in jail on charges of drug peddling and he is now staring at
potential financial losses if uncertainty continues at the border. “I
have leased a few acres of land across the border in which potatoes
and green peas have been sown. I took a loan of Rs.1.5 lakh from the
moneylender. Though we have been allowed to farm now on the other side
of the border by the government, there is still uncertainty because of
this talk of war,” he claimed.
With a large number of farmers adversely affected and talk of war
growing even as standing crops were yet to be harvested, the issue
soon snowballed into a political controversy in the election-bound
State. The opposition parties raised the issue vociferously. “Punjabis
were being made scapegoats for the Uttar Pradesh elections as the BJP
[Bharatiya Janata Party] was unable to establish any foothold there,”
alleged Congress leader Amarinder Singh. He also said: “When there are
not even remote signs of war, why uproot poor farmers when crops are
ready for harvest?” His remarks came on a day when the Chief Minister
was on an extensive tour of the villages in the six border districts,
where he reassured villagers of the administration’s support.
Tindiwala in Ferozepur and Paropal in Amritsar district were two such
villages which he visited. But residents of Tindiwala were unhappy.
Despite being a part of the ruling Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD), sarpanch
Jeet Singh said the visit was unhelpful. “We have been repeatedly
forced to evacuate not only because of the threat of real or
anticipated wars, but also by flooding of the Sutlej river, which
flows very near to our village. Last year, there was flooding here and
our crops and homes were damaged. So we have been seeking a parcel of
five-acre land from the government for constructing rooms to stay in
during times of evacuation. We reiterated our demand this time in
writing when the Chief Minister visited us, but nothing has come of
it. Badal sahab did not even talk to me,” he said.
Several young farmers who were with the sarpanch said the forced
evacuation had caused resentment and that this could politically
affect the SAD’s chances
Back at Paropal village, Gurmeet Singh was more careful about
responding to criticism of the government by fellow villagers, saying
the Chief Minister’s visit had helped. But he pointed out that most
people who had left the villages were now returning and wondered
whether the chaos caused by the evacuations had been worth the
trouble, especially since there was no war. “During the time of
Kargil, except for two roads in the village everything else here was
mined by the Army. The possibility of war could be sensed clearly when
I woke up and drank tea in the morning. This time, there was only an
announcement [rom the gurdwara],” he said.
Peace Is Doable
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