The concertina wire marking the international border with Pakistan was barely four feet away.
“You can see Pakistan’s lights over there,” said Harjit Singh, an NGO worker, pointing towards the sky. “Nothing here is as the media is showing on television. Maybe you can explain why.”
On Sunday night, as his group of NGO workers crossed a bridge to enter the border villages in Punjab’s Ferozepur district, which had been evacuated a few days earlier on instructions of the Punjab government following India’s announcement of the surgical strikes in Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir, Singh’s concerns became self-evident.
Aside from the two Border Security Force jawans posted at the bridge, and five military trucks, there was little to indicate that India was apprehensive that Pakistan would retaliate for the strikes – the prime reason thousands of residents of border villages had been rounded up and sent to relief camps.
In over two hours spent traveling through the villages in the border district, no military personnel inquired about who they were, checked their papers, or even examined the contents of their car – most hotels in New Delhi appear to have higher security.
Farmers stay behind
In the villages of Jallo ke, Bhane Waale, Chudiya, Tindiya, Gatti Rahim ke, and Gatti Rajo Ke – closest to the border with Pakistan – paddy crops drooped, heavy with grain.
Some had chosen to stay out of necessity, to farm. With the crop nearly ready, this is a bad time to leave the fields unattended. Farmers need to harvest their crop before it spoils or is damaged by marauding animals. As it is rising input costs and falling profit margins have seen Punjab’s farmers sink into debt – a Patiala University Study conducted in 2014-'15 estimated that the outstanding debt of farmers in the state stood at Rs 69,300 crore, leading to an increase in farmer suicides.
Others simply refused to believe that there was anything to fear. A young man said that instructions to evacuate the village had come from the gurdwara and the Sub-Divisional Magistrate, but the Army had said nothing about leaving home, yet.
In the poorest houses – homes that were often missing walls and roofs – women peeped out from behind bare brick structures. But the general absence of women and children in the villages had produced a dark, silent night in which men sat outside stores and at street corners playing cards, getting high and passing time.
At Gatti Rajo Ke village, a high school (which despite its name only held classes up to Class 5), provided makeshift accommodation for members of the Punjab Police.
“If everyone has left the borders, who are these men?” said Sherpal Singh, a member of the NGO group, as the volunteers drove past the sixth group of card-players at Bhane Waale village. “Are they Pakistanis?”
Singh said that he felt the film Udta Punjab was an accurate depiction of the youth in these villages, though he disliked its aesthetic choices.
“In fact, the truth is much, much worse,” said Singh. “There may not be Pakistanis coming from across the border today, but drugs are definitely being smuggled in. The youth is wasted, and our fear is that if we talk about the smuggling, then we’ll just be booked by the government ourselves.”
According to Singh, it was common practice for the police to plant sachets of powdered Combiflam, the popular painkiller, on people they wanted to detain. Sometimes, people were put in jail for this for up to six months. “By the time you come out, you are a drug addict even if you weren’t one when you went in,” said Singh.
As the night wore on, a few cars with New Delhi license plates appeared, followed by the car of a zila parishad chairman, and the blue and red flashing lights of Punjab police vehicles.
Passing through the narrow and dark lanes of the village, they led to a field lit up by floodlights, in complete violation of the “no-lights” rule being observed across villages at the Punjab border.
“They must be on a geri-route,” said Sherpal Singh, referring with Punjabi slang to the act of moving in circles – usually used in the context of Punjabi boys driving through city markets with music blasting from their vehicles in the hope of attracting young women.
Children carried pieces of equipment to the illuminated field, an officious man in uniform barked at a muscled man in a yellow vest atop an electrical pole. Preparations were underway to build a helipad for Punjab Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal, who was due to visit the area on Monday.
Politics or necessity?
“Have the villages been emptied for safety, or for politics?” asked a former Army officer from Faridkot, who chose to identify himself only as Babaji.
Babaji was willing to concede that the border villages in Rajasthan and Gujarat had not been evacuated because the 10 km strip closest to the border was uninhabited. But he claimed to have concerns about several parts of the official narrative of the surgical strikes, including the fact that Indian soldiers spent up to 10 hours in enemy territory.
“Was Pakistan asleep?” asked Babaji. “How did they identify only the terrorists, and manage not to kill any civilians? How do we know this footage they claim to have isn’t just a random shoot up in a forest, or made in our own country? Were our men there to fight, or to make a film?”
In the villages, Babaji was not alone in stating that evacuations were premature, and wondering why – if it was risky at the border – Chief Minister Badal was flying into the area in a helicopter.
The Punjab elections are due in January 2017 with the ruling Akali Dal-Bharatiya Janata Party government facing strong anti-incumbency. The results of the election in this area will show whether voters see evacuation, and the losses that it will cause farmers, as a swift and necessary intervention by the government, or a politically-motivated disaster.
The car fell silent as its radio began to pick up Pakistani airwaves: first, an azaan that pierced through the night, and then, an advertisement for a restaurant selling, among other delectables, a “chicken-vegetable seekh kebab”.
“Pakistan mein bhi log vegetarian hain ab [Pakistan also has vegetarians now]?” said Harjit Singh, the NGO volunteer, switching off the radio. “Mood kharaab ho gaya sun ke [Hearing this has ruined my mood]”.
All photographs by Nishita Jha.