Wikipedia carries a long article on the September 2016 Uri attack. I scanned it to see if it mentioned Punjab. I drew a blank. 17 soldiers lost their lives and 19 were injured to the pre-dawn attack by allegedly Pakistan based Jaish-e-Mohammad when four infiltrators lobbed 17 grenades in less than three minutes. Ten days later, the attack was followed by a ‘surgical strike’ by India. The nation erupted into cheer. Immediately after the strike, the Centre asked the Punjab government to get the 553 kilometres of the Punjab border vacated ten kilometres deep. If anyone was tangibly discomfited by the surgical strike, it was Punjab. From the wiki entry, which will hang forever on the internet, it is clear Punjab has not made it to the narrative. Neither Punjab nor I are surprised. This is passé. Punjab not being acknowledged is part of its cultural memory for the past few millennia since it has served as a gate to the sub-continent and been invaded countless times.
Towards end of February 2017, the right-wing hooligans of the Akhil Bhartiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) sabotaged a seminar in Delhi’s Ramjas College. It became a battle over freedom of speech. A 20-year-old first year student of Lady Sriram College took a stance through a poster on social media: #studentsagainstABVP. When that happened, someone pulled out her last year’s mute placard campaign in which she tells the story of her reconciliation with the loss of her father. When she was 2 years old, on August 6, 1999, Gurmehar Kaur’s father, Capt Mandeep Singh, was serving in a counter-insurgency operation, Rakshak, providing security to Amarnath pilgrims. Terrorists attacked his company post in village Chak Nutnusa in Kupwara district. He along with six personnel was martyred.
Gurmeher displays her understanding that it was not Pakistan but ‘war that killed her father’. A senior cricket player and a mostly out-of-work cine actor trolled her for her stance. Later, serving ministers jumped in to moralize her. A whole lot of paid right-wing hooligans besmirched and trolled her. Using the same name-of-the-nation for which her father had sacrificed his life, these neophyte nationalists were now discrediting her, abusing her in the worst language. A war erupted on social media and engulfed the country for days. I wondered how shallow we were making our nationalism.
I asked myself: what if Gurmeher was not a martyr’s daughter. What if she were an ordinary Punjabi Sikh girl? The answer is obvious: the same right-wing would have called her a Khalistan supporter. The Sikh community would have been demonized once again like in the 1980s. The nation would have again denied Punjab its geography, its history, its role as a gateway to India. It seems that to talk of peace in this would-be-youngest nation of the world is a crime. The nation’s hormones are bursting and Pakistan is the perfect enemy. It celebrates the 56-inch chest of its supreme leader. It shouts, screams, and imposes its nationalism on everyone. Yet, I doubt any of these right-wingers or their families have ever served in the defence services, ever been posted at Siachen or the deserts of Rajasthan or the jungles of Nagaland, or have ever faced the bullets from the enemies. In Punjab, where Gurmeher comes from within the last three generations, every third family would have someone who has served in the forces.
Is this how Punjab looks into the eye of war or is it an I-care-a-damn attitude – what will be will be? It is Baba’s mela, we just have to go. The nation can sort itself out.
In 2016, within four days of the Punjab CM Prakash Singh Badal’s orders to evict the border belt, I was at Dera Baba Nanak in Gurdaspur. From this border post, on a clear day, one can see the Gurdwara at Kartarpur Sahib in Pakistan. Next to the post is a huge board which reads: "Sikhs are petitioning the government to construct a bridge three kilometres long across the river Ravi so the community can have unhindered access to the site from where Baba Nanak departed for his heavenly abode.”
The Border Security Force sentry allows me entry only when I show her my press pass. Not sternly but cautiously she forbids me from climbing the post from where the Gurdwara is visible. She hastens to send me away. I notice her name tag, Manjeet Kaur, ‘Kithe pind? Where is your village?’
‘It is nearby. Because Delhi has started its television war, our family had to vacate home,’ she says.
‘You didn’t go with them?’
‘Duty. So their TV channels can run.’
‘No Army movement here?’
‘How can I tell you? See for yourself. Now go!’
I know a village nearby, Ghanike Bet, within Indian territory, but across the Ravi. There, the river meanders along the India-Pakistan border. I had visited it a few weeks back to learn its story of extreme neglect and how in monsoons it is almost cut off from the mainland. I know visiting it would be futile. To check, I call Ravinder from the village. ‘Kithe ho? Where are you?’
‘Where will I be? Sent family away. But, some of us men are here. Cattle is here. Paddy stands in fields. We can’t leave.’
‘Can I come over?’
‘The security won’t allow you. Now even the boatman is hardly there.’
‘What if there is war?’
‘Then there is war. We shall see.’
‘Maybe swim across? After all, the Army would need to send forces here. They will do something.’
‘Do you have some liquor etc.?’
‘Poora ji. All set! Come if you can.’
I can’t. I know I can’t. The Director General Military Operations, Lieutenant General Ranbir Singh, my school senior, had given the news of the surgical strike in his brief three-minute statement. Delhi-based newspapers are reporting, debating, and fighting over the genuineness of the surgical strike. This is what the Army officer said; this is what he did not say. Since then, Delhi television studios are running campaigns saying ‘a jaw for a tooth’, congratulating the government, running opinion polls on whether India should go to war or not. A Rajasthan civil services officer is on a twitter campaign counting how many people are willing to opt for a nuclear strike. The war has become a middle-class video game. Life on the border has never been lonelier. That is where reporting from Punjab differed so much from the reporting from Delhi – but who reads when the lens itself is nationalism?
Next day, a friend from Amritsar insists I address his students. We enter the fancy English medium school. It is open today because it is twelve kilometres from the border and not less than ten kilometres. As if a nuclear radiation or even tank shells will care about the distance. I ask the children if they support war. They are overwhelmingly against it. I ask if their families have had to move away from border villages. Yes, some of them have had to do that. I ask if they watch television. They say, ‘yes’, and are scared about the war-mongering. I ask them why they don’t write to the newspapers about their fears, why they don’t call up television studios about their concerns. They tell me they never thought of it. They do not know how to do it. Honestly, even I do not know how to do it. Yet, as an adult, I ask myself what can be done, must be done. I wonder if for the television channels the TRP ratings are more important than the psyche of the next generation. Is the neo-nationalist market so big or are their testosterone levels so high?
The nation is not defined in the cosy sofas of India’s middle class homes or in the shakhas of the right-wing organizations or in the fantastic speeches during election rallies or in the Parliament. To me, the nation is defined here. On the ground where a completely stupid line – the border – has divided our people from each other.
We come to Amritsar via Ajnala. I ask in the nearby villages, slightly away from the border: there is no war. Every shopkeeper, every friend I meet there says it is just a rumour. The business is on, so are their regular activities. Next day, I leave towards Ferozepur. On the way, I spot many tractors and trolleys full of people alongside my car. Where are they going? Is this exodus? Why do they look cheerful? The mystery is soon revealed: it is a mela, fair, at Gurdwara Beerh Baba Budda Sahib ji, named after the grand old man of the Sikh religion, who anointed five Sikh Gurus and had visions of seven of them, the first high priest of the Durbar Sahib. The villagers are converging. I am partly amused and party surprised. Is this how Punjab looks into the eye of war or is it an I-care-a-damn attitude – what will be will be? It is Baba’s mela, we just have to go. The nation can sort itself out.
At the village Khalra near Bhikiwind, the border is less than 500 metres away. Close to the village, I spot an old man. He looks over seventy years of age. I ask him, ‘Baba, have you been here all along?’ He replies in the affirmative. I stop the car and get out. ‘Can you tell me how many times have you had to evict your homes in your life?’ We start counting: Partition, 1965, 1971, Operation Brasstacks, Kargil War, Operation Prakram, now. A few more villagers gather. ‘During which of these was the eviction smoothest?’
‘Well, 1971 was the worst,’ he says. ‘We were moved around for three months and then asked to settle. Indira said no war. Then suddenly there was war.’
‘But you supported the army …’
‘Of course we did. We will always do. They fight for us, we stand by them. But nuksaan – damage is of fields, of crops, of homes, schools … So much is lost,’ he speaks slowly, with pauses.
Another voice comes in. ‘During Kargil, they planted mines in the fields. The war ended, the Army went away. It took them three years to clear the mines. We were compensated for only one crop.’
‘This is the most fuddu – stupid operation. Five days and the Army is nowhere!’
‘But which was the best operation?’
The old man answers, ‘1965. By around 8 pm, we had dinner and lay down to sleep. Our eyes opened by 2 am with bomb-baazi
, sound of tank fire. We didn’t even realise when the Army tanks had crossed over our villages. So, we too dug in our heels. Our Gurdwaras started preparing langar, we started feeding the troops.’
‘It is not a lie. Lal Bahadur Shastri was the best prime minister we ever had.’
A man around 35 years of age, each of whose legs are covered in green and white plastic sacks, butts in, ‘Le, even now I fed the BSF.’ I turn to him. ‘On September 29, the Gurdwaras asked people to flee. I packed my six-member family off to relatives. I only have a bike so I did two rounds. Next day, I came back. My cattle were hungry and thirsty. We could not feed it the previous day.’
‘That is when the BSF jawans asked me for milk. I told them my cows were thirsty, she isn’t milking today. Then they asked me for food. They told me they hadn’t eaten in 24 hours. Naturally, I cooked for them. Next day, I again came. My wife had sent rotis and subzi for the jawans. But you know, even among relatives, these days it is difficult to stay long. Homes are small. Hearts are even smaller.’
‘So you came back?’
Sonara Singh says, ‘After three days. What other choice did we have? Badal says he has set up provisions. Nothing he has set up. The stupid thing is, our home does not have a toilet. We all go to the fields. Now the same BSF is not allowing our ladies to go out. I have a mother, a wife, a daughter. What should we do?’
I see a tar and gravel laden dumper approaching. ‘So why are you dressed up in these sacks?’
‘We are making the road. What if the Army finally comes? They would need a road. These leaders are big people. Who knows what they will decide.’
On the ground where a completely stupid line – the border – has divided our people from each other. ‘Do you know folks across the border?’ Many of the gathered say, yes they know them. We even see them farming every days, even in these days. Out fields are adjacent, our families are near each other. Not so long ago there were no barriers.
My instinct was to drag down a TV reporter to this village. Show him what to me seems like the greatest nationalist one could ever find. All of them. All the people in these villages. The nation is not defined in the cosy sofas of India’s middle class homes or in the shakhas of the right-wing organizations or in the fantastic speeches during election rallies or in the Parliament. To me, the nation is defined here. On the ground where a completely stupid line – the border – has divided our people from each other. ‘Do you know folks across the border?’ Many of the gathered say, yes they know them. We even see them farming every days, even in these days. Out fields are adjacent, our families are near each other. Not so long ago there were no barriers.
I move to Khem Karan, the site of the famous tank battle in 1965. Here too, villagers sitting on the platform near the Gurdwara show me paddy standing ripe to be harvested. They curse Badal and Narendra Modi in the choicest language. They tell me, they are not leaving. Next day, I am at the Hussainiwala border near Ferozepur. It is more than a security post. It hosts memorials from the previous wars. It also features the Prerna Sthal memorials to Bhagat Singh, Sukhdev, and Rajguru and an eternal fire (Amar Jyoti) to B K Dutt. Here, Monu, the parking lot contractor, says, ‘I paid Rs 6 lakh per annum for the contract and took charge on September 25. Four days later, the tamasha – circus started. My year is ruined.’
It seems clear that the Shiromani Akali Dal-Bharatiya Janata Party (SAD-BJP) government had goofed up big time. The Centre, probably Home Minister Rajnath Singh, must have asked them to bend and the government crawled. The Congress MLAs, whether in Dera Baba Nanak, Dina Nagar, Firozepur, Guru Har Sahai or any of the other border constituencies, came and addressed the villagers, asked them to not become refugees of an un-fought war. These orders were only for Punjab when even Jammu and Kashmir, Rajasthan, and Gujarat share a border with Pakistan.
Further southwards, near Baje Ke, I again stop and check with ordinary village folks. It is dusk, the street corners have the aroma of fresh gobi and palak pakodas. People are unhappy with the eviction orders but they have defied them. After I have spoken to a cluster of men, Rakesh, a thirtyish man with a polio-affected leg stops me from getting into the car. ‘Bhaaji, patrakar hon? Brother, are you a journalist?’ I nod. ‘If you can please, get the war started.’ I am like no, no way. ‘But see nothing happens in our lives. So much noise all the time, all this poverty, all this unemployment, and these drugs. If there is a war, at least we will be able to tell our children we saw a war. Would that not be magnificent?’ I burst out laughing and ask what if he dies. ‘Then khel khatam. It will be the end of the game.’
The story of gates is never the story of the house. While the right-wing manufactures its own brand of hooligan nationalism, Punjab, which has been in the cross-fire forever and will bear the pain of war on its chest, defines it differently. When she should have been playing in her father’s arms, Gurmeher dealt with grief. She rose above the blame game of nations and dared to see the larger picture. While her episode was on, a student group, called Students for Society from Panjab University Chandigarh, wanted to hold a seminar on the ‘Rising Head of Fascism’. The university tried its best to curb it but failed to prevent it from taking place. The speakers who spoke and who were arrested from the university gates belonged to a spectrum of thought – extremist to centrist to Leftist. This was unique because the various factions in Punjab have not come together in the last half century and eventually the state went into a decade-and-a-half long militancy. In Bathinda, citizens marched in a huge rally called by around fifteen forward-looking organizations concerned with human rights and agrarian issues. The home grown right wingers do not know this about Punjab: the gate does not parrot the house but eventually the house needs the gate. They better keep their pettiness to themselves and not peddle it towards Punjab.
Amandeep Sandhu is working on a non-fiction book on Panjab.
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