Border situation

Panic on border

Print edition : October 28, 2016

Women from Chandiwala village in Ferozepur district of Punjab crossing the Sutlej river with their belongings on September 30. Photo: PTI

Former Punjab Congress chief Pratap Singh Bajwa addressing villagers of Dhonawal near Amritsar on October 5. Photo: AKHILESH KUMAR

Villagers from the border area of Attari evacuating following a government order in the wake of the surgical strikes. Photo: PTI

Officials at a makeshift relief camp, set up at a government school, at Dera Pathana in Gurdaspur district on October 5. Photo: AKHILESH KUMAR

Bakhda village residents Puran Singh and his wife Armesh Kaur at the Shahid Bhagat Singh gurdwara in Ferozepur district. Photo: AKSHAY DESHMANE

A family busy harvesting cauliflower close to a BSF post in Dera Baba Nanak along the international border in Gurdaspur district on October 5. Many villagers have not left their homes despite the State government's order to evacuate. Photo: AKHILESH KUMAR

Haphazard evacuations of hundreds of border villages in Punjab have adversely affected a large number of farmers, leading to widespread resentment.

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 said.

Similar stories

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.

Haphazard evacuations

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 for all.”

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.

Political storm

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.