At a press conference held in New Delhi on Tuesday, KK Sharma, the Director General of the Border Security Force, told reporters that the force had not issued any orders to evacuate villages within 10 km of the International Border with Pakistan in Punjab. Sharma also said that any such directives had been issued by the civil administration, and that residents of border areas may have been asked to leave the area as a precautionary measure.
Sharma’s statement has the potential to significantly stir up politics in Punjab, which goes to the polls in January 2017.
Soon after India announced on Thursday that it had conducted surgical strikes on terrorists and terror infrastructure across the Line of Control in Jammu and Kashmir, announcements on gurdwara loudspeakers in villages near the border in Punjab asked residents to evacuate their homes. In the following days an estimated 15 lakh people were sent to relief camps away from the border.
The clarification by the Border Security Force chief, which indicates that the evacuation was conducted at the behest of the ruling Akali Dal-Bharatiya Janata Party government, which faces strong anti-incumbency in the upcoming polls, has resulted in the key political players in the state alleging that the evacuation was politically motivated.
Hours after Sharma’s press conference, the Aam Aadmi Party’s Punjab state convenor Gurpreet Singh Ghuggi told Scroll.in that he had several questions for Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal.
Said Ghuggi: “We don’t want to compromise on national security either, but can the government clarify who gave the order [to evacuate border villages], what were their specific instructions, and what is the status of that order today?”
Harvest at risk?
In villages in the border districts of Tarn Taran, Ferozepur, Faridkot, Amritsar and Gurdaspur, farmers have primarily grown paddy, and the crops in the fields droop, heavy with grain. By the second week of October, the crop will be ripe for harvest and if it is not gathered in time, it will spoil. This yield is the only source of income for farmers. Given that rising input costs and falling profit margins have seen Punjab’s farmers sink into debt, losing a healthy crop is simply not an option.
This is perhaps why several evacuated villagers, who are housed in relief camps just outside the 10 km margin from the border, have started going back to their villages every morning to tend to their crops, and return to the camp late at night. This daily travel adds significantly to their fuel expenditure.
Scroll.in visited the villages of Jallo ke, Bhane Waale, Chudiya, Tindiya, Gatti Rahim ke, and Gatti Rajo Ke that are closest to the border with Pakistan and found there was little military presence in the area. Essentially, there is little to indicate that India was apprehensive that Pakistan would retaliate for the strikes – the prime reason border residents had been sent away. Residents who had stayed back also wondered why the chief minister was planning to fly into the area in a helicopter if the threat was so severe.
These are questions that the Akali Dal-Bharatiya Janata Party alliance's rivals are also asking.
For instance, Ghuggi claimed to have spent several days visiting the border villages where he found several residents unwilling or unable to leave their homes.
If we are in a state of emergency, how can you just give an order for evacuation and then sit back and say, ‘Follow it if you want, otherwise do as you please?’” he asked.
In Amritsar, Hargurinder Singh Gill, secretary of the district Congress Committee, told Scroll.in that all evidence so far pointed to the fact that the evacuations from the border were politically motivated.
“The state government is using this as an excuse to ask the Centre for money,” said Gill, who is a retired Army officer.
State Congress president Amarinder Singh has also enquired why border areas had been evacuated when even the Army was not on alert.
However, Rajesh Honey, the BJP’s Amritsar district president, said that his party was deeply saddened by attempts by the Aam Aadmi Party and the Congress to politicise a national security matter.
“Only the victims know how much danger they were in,” he said. “If something had happened to them during that sensitive time, who else would have been responsible?”
Honey would not clarify if the “sensitive time” had passed, but confirmed that evacuees would be permitted to return home soon. “We are already letting farmers go back and farm," he said. "We are providing them with security so that they can be safe and harvest the crop at the same time.”
Meanwhile, Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh has called for a meeting on October 7 with the chief ministers of Jammu and Kashmir, Punjab, Gujarat and Rajasthan, all of which share a border with Pakistan.
Thus far, all portents of war with Pakistan appear to have been airborne. Since Thursday, when India announced the surgical strikes, balloons bearing mildly sinister messages addressed to Prime Minister Narendra Modi drifted in over the border at Gurdaspur, and the police took into custody from Bamial, Gurdaspur, a pigeon carrying a threatening message addressed to Modi.
On Tuesday, members of the rural district Congress committee’s office scanned their WhatsApp messages to locate a photograph of an eagle from Pakistan that had allegedly been fitted with a camera, which, they said, had been shot down by Indian soldiers.
“We are not scared of war, we will welcome the border refugees with open arms,” said Dalbir Singh Raja, a Congress party worker. “Look at all the space in the compound outside, we will build shelters for them here. If this isn’t enough, the Congress party will apply for a tender so we can get more land, to build shelters for our guests.”