Sleepless on border: ‘A family even took buffaloes… but can anyone take his home?’

In Rajaoke, where most families have left the village, leaving one person behind to look after their house and cattle, those who remain are hoping that this routine silence of the night will never be shattered.

Written by Nirupama Subramanian , KAMALDEEP SINGH BRAR | Rajaoke | Updated: October 2, 2016 11:14 am
Rajaoke, india pakistan, india pakistan border, indo pak, indo pak border, surgical strikes, punjab evacuation, punjab border, punjab news, india news ‘We’re packed, can leave at moment’s notice.’ (Source: Express photo by Rana Simranjit Singh)

“THERE IS no fear during the day. Everything is normal. The night is when it’s frightening,” says Parwinder Kaur. It’s 10 pm in this village, 1.5 km from the India-Pakistan border, on Friday, 32 hours after the evacuation orders were first announced over the village gurudwara. It’s a still night, and silence has fallen over the village, not unusual because most people turn in for the night by 9 pm.

In Rajaoke, where most families have left the village, leaving one person behind to look after their house and cattle, those who remain are hoping that this comforting, routine silence of the night will never be shattered.

Parwinder’s two sons and daughters-in-law, and their children, left immediately after the evacuation orders, going to their relatives outside the 10 km evacuation zone. On Friday morning, only her sons came back to tend to the fields, and left the village again in the evening.

“I decided I would be the one to stay back. Someone has to feed the buffaloes and look after the house. Saving the young women and children is the first priority. I can look after myself,” says Parwinder, 68.

She has come to spend the night with a family, whose four oldest members and two young boys decided to stay back after seeing off seven others of the family. They have put out cots in the yard and are getting ready for the night.

“Attacks never happen in the day time, they always come late at night or early in the morning,” says Jiaoun Singh.

From the terrace of his one-storeyed house, a glow of yellow from the floodlights is both a comfort for the family that the BSF is not far away, as well as a reminder of their proximity to potential trouble.

“We are not worried about the big bombs, if Pakistan fires those, they will fly over Rajaoke and hit some other place. Those are meant for big cities. What we fear is the possibility of smaller shells,” says Kulwant Singh, Jiaoun’s brother.

Chamkaur Singh, one of the younger men, says he could not sleep the other night. “I kept going up to the terrace to check if anything was happening,” he says.

It is too early to say how the tension that has gripped Punjab’s border villages over the last few days will play out during the assembly elections. In Rajaoke, which is a reserved village, the sarpanch is a Dalit woman. But the real power centre is Nirmal Singh, who introduces himself as the sarpanch and describes himself as an Akali worker, and who owns the best house in the village.

“Nobody wants to take political advantage of this situation. Chief Minister (Parkash Singh) Badal has told Akali MLAs not to sit around in Chandigarh, to go and be of help to people. You can see, the ministers and MLAs are going everywhere. Yesterday, the SP, BDO, DSP, SHO, everyone came to check on the parts of the village that are on the other side of the defence line,” he says, referring to a drain that runs through the village, and into which water is released to the brim should there be a threat from across the border.

“It boosts the morale of the people. They are also providing free transport to poor people who have no vehicles to ferry them back to the village in the morning, and take them to the camps at night,” says Nirmal Singh.

Most of the villagers who have gone to the camps are Dalit families, while the upper caste families have gone to stay with relatives.

“Everyone is happy that (Prime Minister Narendra) Modi has given a mooh todh jawab (befitting reply) to Pakistan. They were taking us for granted. Even the zamindars in this village are happy, despite their concerns about their fields and harvest,” declared the de facto sarpanch.

Nobody can tell how long the situation will continue, he says. “Even when farmers fight, its takes a week for people to calm down. This is a matter between two countries,” he adds.

But Satnam Singh, who says he is an Akali worker, is angry with the government. “There is no problem here, so tell me why are they driving people out. I have built a Rs 2 crore house, can I just leave? Maybe Badal thinks this will help in the elections, but he’s forcing us to become homeless. I haven’t seen a single soldier. If there is such a big threat, why can’t we see the Army in this village,” he asks.

Worried about his rice crop, Satnam says the government now has the perfect alibi to put off quick procurement.

Another farmer, Karaj Singh, who, according to villagers, nurses the ambition of becoming the first AAP sarpanch of Rajaoke, says the mood of the people will become clear only after the code of conduct comes into effect. “Everybody is an Akali now, many for their own reasons,” he says.

The Akali Dal may benefit from the Centre’s strong response to Pakistan, says Karaj, adding that this is the right reply.

“But that will be offset by the delay that’s going to hit grain procurement. Last year, the procurement got delayed because of all the trouble over the desecration incidents, we had to sell our basmati at rock bottom rates of Rs 1,500 per quintal. But the traders were still selling it for Rs 3,200- Rs 4,500 per quintal. This harvest season, there’s a new problem,” he says.

Swaran Singh, who also describes himself as an AAP worker, has a contrary theory. “The government will do everything to procure the paddy on time. And they will say that despite all the troubles they did not let the farmers go hungry,” he says.

Back in Jiaoun Singh’s yard, the conversation shifts to what people took with them. “One family even took their buffaloes,” laughs Kulwant. “But can anyone take his land or his home?” he asks.

His brother retorts: “We made these houses to live in them. We can’t go and live with relatives indefinitely. They will get tired of us, or worse, they might expect something in return.”

A few houses away, Sukhwinder’s family is proud that none of the 13 members have left the village. Sukhwinder points to the tractor trolley in a dark corner of the yard. It is loaded with suitcases and large aluminium trunks.

Sukhwinder’s loaded tractor has become the talking point of the village, but it is also symbolic of the atmosphere of uncertainty that has taken over the border villages since the evacuation began, and the reluctance of people to abandon their hard-built lives even in the face of possible danger.

“We are all packed, and we can leave at a moment’s notice, but we are not leaving just yet,” says Sukhwinder. “Not till we hear the sounds of shells falling. And when we go, we are taking only our rations and clothes,” he says.

He and his 85-year-old father, Ajit Singh, give a guided tour of the five rooms in the house, each with massive box beds, other furniture, television sets, a fridge. “If we have to go, we will be leaving all this behind,” says Ajit Singh.

He declares that he will stay behind to look after the house. “I can also help the soldiers when they go to the front,” he says. The younger boys also declare that if war comes, they will stay on in solidarity with the soldiers.

That sentiment is voiced by many of those who remain in the village, even as people express confidence that “nothing will happen”. Swaran Singh and Rajwant say one night at a relative’s place was enough. “There’s no place like home,’’ she says. The couple also brought their two young sons back with them.

People in the village would rather wait for the first “signals”.

“There are no signals yet. We have seen earlier, in 1965, 1971, 1999 and 2001, that the Army becomes very visible at the first sign of trouble. We haven’t seen any soldiers, it’s still only the BSF. Next, the Army breaks all the bridges over the drains, and then they increase the water level in the drain to about 7-8 feet. None of those things have happened,” says Jiaoun, predicting that as the initial tension wears off, people will begin to return.

About 1,000 acres of land owned by people in Rajaoke lies beyond the wire fence. Farmers are given access to these fields six days of the week.

“The day BSF reopens the gates to those fields, that will be the sign that people can come back and stay for good,” says Gurmit Singh, a young farmer whose land lies close to the fence.

For now, though, the young farmer says he wants to take photographs of himself with some soldiers and send them to his friends on WhatsApp, to tell them he’s standing ready to help the Indian Army.