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Evacuation of Punjab border towns post Uri has become a battle for votes

Gunjeet Sra
Gunjeet SraOct 05, 2016 | 09:09

Evacuation of Punjab border towns post Uri has become a battle for votes

Last week, as news broke out that India had conducted surgical strikes across the border in Pakistan, war-mongering peaked across television channels and a sense of panic gripped the border towns in Punjab. Gurudwaras at the border issued repeated mandates from their loudspeakers asking the residents to leave town and stay with relatives for a few days until the fear of retaliation from the other side died down.

Police vehicles too were used to make similar announcements across villages asking residents to leave or switch off all lights at night. Although the Border Security Force (BSF) maintained there was nothing to worry about, people continued to flee their homes and, very soon, the government agencies started to aid the panic.

Around 100 villages in Dorangla, Dera Baba Nanak and Behrampur blocks (Gurdaspur), Narot Jaimal Singh and Bamial blocks (Pathankot) were vacated within hours on September 29 after the police received verbal instructions from the state government to aid the evacuation process. There was also an article published by the Economic Times that stated the Army was moving into the border towns to build land-mines, which just aided the already mounting panic in the state that has seen its fair share of land-mine accidents.

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So far, the only movement that has been detected across the border has been that of balloons. Photo credit: PTI

The last time the Army came to the border towns of Punjab in 2001-2002 during the Operation Parakram, 60-year-old Kuldeep Kaur lost both her legs when she stepped on an anti-personnel landmine on her farm.

“We lost two seasons of our crops. The cases of cattle stepping on land-mines was a regular occurrence and we were even scared to step into our field,” recalls 30-year-old Harnam Singh from Jalalabad, Punjab. “Are they really coming?” he asks. So far it doesn’t look like it. But all government and private schools in the area have been closed and the days have come to a standstill. 

Almost a week later, things are starting to get normal in the rest of India. The war talk has subsided and people have resumed with their normal preoccupations, but nearly 1,000 villages of Punjab lie displaced and around 4,00,000 people have been pressed to evacuate their homes and their livelihoods. Most of them have been reluctant to leave behind their cattle and their crop that is almost ready to harvest after months of wait.

When chief minister Prakash Singh Badal used his chopper to fly down to these areas, he was met by angry crowds that demanded to know if similar treatment was being meted out in the border towns of Rajasthan and Gujarat that were merely on high alert. Amidst the din of angry voices, Prakash Singh Badal made it clear to all displaced families that there has been no ban on harvesting the paddy that is almost ready to hit the market. But the anger against the government is yet to subside as the opposition has vocalised its fears that the BJP and SAD government are using war-mongering for political mileage.

"There has been no movement by the Pakistani Army. These days everything can be seen through satellites and technology. Even if a jeep moves, we can see that. The Centre and the Punjab government have unnecessarily ordered the evacuation. Thousands of people are being harassed," said Congress chief and former chief minister Amarinder Singh (captain). 

The captain also said that the evacuation is being used to build up hysteria and take advantage of the upcoming Assembly polls. The chief minister reacted to the statement by saying that the opposition is using this opportunity to create mistrust between the Army, the Centre and the people - and that politics should stay out of national interest. The SAD-led government now wants an apology from Amarinder Singh, who is currently busy persuading the displaced families to get back to their homes.

As the war of words continues, it has become increasingly clear that all political parties have now made the evacuation crisis the sole agenda for the upcoming state elections. Take for example the case of BJP leader, Sukhpal Singh Nannu, who was seen working the fodder chopping machine in the Ferozepur district so that he could “feed the hungry cattle” left behind and also served langar to the displaced families.

A Congress MLA from Ferozepur city, Parminder Pinki spent two nights in the border towns harvesting paddy and moving the grain to the market. He has been spending nights in the village to persuade villagers not to leave their homes and to instil “confidence" in them. Meanwhile, BJP president Kamal Sharma has been persuading the villagers to do the opposite.

“We don’t even know whom to trust. So we come to the relief camps at night after we have finished our work at home, but this daily up and down is costing us not only money, but also peace of mind. If only someone could clearly tell us about what is really happening, we could go back to our lives,” says a disgruntled 67-year-old Karnal Singh, a farmer from Gatti Rahim Ke, a small village in Ferozepur.

Farmers are yet to receive compensation for their crops that were damaged last year due to the floods and the thought of another harvest going to waste is causing waves of desperate anger across relief camps. To curb the rising chord of dissent and dissatisfaction, movies are now being screened in relief camps and free legal aid stalls have been set up to aid long-pending farmer disputes. 

In all this confusion, it is hard not to point out the farcical nature in which the state government has misused the war crisis and failed to inspire confidence in the general public. It has instead tried to create a sense of panic in its citizens at a time when they needed it the most. It also brings to light the desperation of the SAD government that is trying hard to rally votes and confidence in people by displacing them so that they can sweep in like saviours at the last minute.

But for now, they will have to try harder as their current tactics seem to have fallen flat on the face. Ajit Singh, a farmer from Ferozepur, summed up the scenario, “Nobody cares about the people from the border until and unless there is a war situation, even then, we are never given proper compensation for damages that we endure. The evacuation has displaced us once more and it is a joke to think that the political parties really care about our lives. It's time they solved all our old issues first if they want our cooperation.” 

So far, the only movement that has been detected across the border has been that of balloons. The BSF intercepted at least three dozen balloons from across the Punjab border on Saturday with hate messages for India and the prime minister. Other than that, the only war raging right now is the political war inside Punjab.

Last updated: October 06, 2016 | 11:40
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