Updated: January 29, 2022 10:36:48 am
Around 6 am on Friday, Baldev Patel got the call from Canada that he had been dreading. Friends there told the elderly man in his 60s that the Canadian authorities had confirmed that the four bodies found frozen to death near the border with the US were that of his son, daughter-in-law and two grandchildren.
It was nine days after the family, originally from Dingucha, lost touch with the four, the last conversation being on January 19, when they informed they had reached Canada safely. The bodies had been discovered the same day, near Manitoba on the Canadian side of the border, where temperatures are as low as -30 degrees Celsius at this time.
At around 3 am on Friday India time, the High Commission in Ottawa issued a statement identifying the four as Jagdish Patel, 39, his wife Vaishali (37), their daughter Vihangi (11), and son Dharmik (3).
Baldev and his bedridden wife Madhu Patel, also the deputy sarpanch of Dingucha, were at the village on Friday with relatives for a ‘besna’ ceremony. With the cost of the return of the bodies prohibitive, the cremation will be performed in Canada. Jagdish’s cousin Jaswant, a school-teacher, said: “We are absolutely devastated.”
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Jagdish and wife Vaishali also worked as schoolteachers, at different schools in Kalol and Gandhinagar, till about three years ago, when Jagdish had joined younger brother Mahendra Patel’s garment business in Kalol city. A few months ago, the family left the rented accommodation in Kalol and moved back to their ancestral home in Dingucha. As per local authorites and police, a fortnight ago, they left for Canada on a visitors’ visa.
There is almost no house in Dingucha with a resident who does not live abroad, mostly the US. And the Patels were not the first to try and make it to America somehow. The family admits Jagdish hoped to make a “new life” abroad, and that only his parents and brothers knew about his plans.
Amritbhai Patel, a relative, says Baldev confessed to him a few days ago. “Jagdish had packed all the winter clothes and toys the children had. He left his motorcycle for his father to use.”
A family friend says they were shocked to hear he had tried to cross into the US with wife and children in tow.
Dingucha sarpanch Mathurji Thakor says Baldev approached them saying his son and his family had “gone missing” and he was worried. “We demand compensation for the family by the state government.”
Residents say migration of people abroad began in the early ’90s. Of its total population of 3,280, Patidars and Thakors constitute 40% each. Dingucha has a government primary school, a trust-funded public senior secondary school and a community health care centre funded by the villagers themselves. Agriculture is the main occupation.
Wall paintings and billboards in lane after lane advertise student visas and permanent residency in Canada “with or without IELTS”.
Jayesh Chaudhary, the Talati of the village, says: “There is no record of the number of people from the village who have travelled overseas. However, more than 50% of the houses here remain locked since the inhabitants are either in Ahmedabad and Gandhinagar or other countries.”
The statement by the Indian High Commission in Ottawa said: “The Consulate General of India in Toronto is in touch with the family of the deceased and is providing all consular support… the death of all the persons has been determined to be consistent with exposure to outdoor elements… A special team, led by a senior consular officer, from the Consulate General of India in Toronto, is camping in Manitoba to assist ongoing investigation by Canadian agencies and to render any consular services for the victims.”
The Commission said the tragedy had brought into focus “the need to ensure that migration and mobility are made safe and legal”, and that several ideas were being discussed by India and Canada.
Besides the four found dead by the Canadian authorities, law enforcement agencies on the American side had detained seven undocumented Indians. Preliminary investigations indicate all 11 were part of the same group illegally trying to enter the US from Canada.
A statement by the USC Customs and Border Protection Friday said the seven would be deported to India soon.
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