The Indian Express reporter Jonathan Selvaraj relives his journey through deserted roads, past protesters and blockades, in violence-hit Haryana while returning to Delhi from the National Institute of Sports (NIS) in Patiala.
“IT’S all media hype,” said Avtar Singh. We were on a bus on Saturday from Patiala to Delhi that, we were informed, would halt at Ambala this time due to the Jat quota agitation. “I came yesterday from Delhi and there was no problem. We will get a vehicle from Ambala to Delhi, for sure,” said Singh. As I would later realise over the next 13 hours, he was wrong.
At Ambala, we were told that roadblocks had been laid and traffic was being stopped by violent protesters. No driver was willing to risk the four-hour journey down NH1 to Delhi. Trains were not running either.
Avtar and I, along with another passenger, hitched a ride to Karnal, 40 km away, where we were joined by four soldiers heading home to Bengal, Gujarat and Maharashtra. Soon, we flagged down a tempo truck whose driver agreed to take us to Sonepat.
A few kilometres down the road, we picked up a Haryana Police constable and a Delhi college student. With law enforcement on our side, literally, it would be easier to get to Delhi at night. Or so, we thought.
It was then that a series of events unfolded to ensure that this turned out to be a journey that none among us would forget in a hurry. After passing the toll booth for Panipat, the driver decided to turn right towards Munak canal to bypass the city and, hopefully, trouble.
But we had just passed the Panipat Naptha Cracker factory when we came across the first roadblock. It was manned by around 10 men armed with lathis and a large branch of a tree.
“Yahan sab Hindu hain na (All of you are Hindus, right)?” asked an old man in a light-coloured turban. We said ‘yes’, adding that we were regular visitors to Vaishno Devi. Asked for proof, we chanted ‘Jai Mata Di’ and then when ordered to, ‘Bharat Mata Ki Jai’.
He got less confrontational, however, when he started abusing Haryana Chief Minister M L Khattar and the soldier from Maharashtra joined in.
Having bypassed Panipat, we crossed back onto the national highway, and straight into what resembled a disaster movie scene. Scores of trucks were parallel-parked along the road that was dug up, with stones and branches laid across. We saw people carrying suitcases and wheeling bags, as if they were walking all the way to Delhi, still 90 km away.
Near Samalkha, we ran into a second roadblock. The protesters were clear: we could either drink alcohol with them or head back. They did not appear menacing though and one of them suggested an alternate route through the villages.
Around 3 am, we ran into a third barricade, this time created by 18-wheeler parked across the road. Three men who had joined us at Samalkha tried to convince the protesters to let us through. Armed with sticks and smelling of alcohol, they allowed us to move on but told the three from Samalkha to “walk to Delhi”.
Once again, we detoured through the villages back on to the highway. By now, our truck driver had agreed to take us all the way to Delhi. Near Sonepat, he got off the highway and headed for the Narela border. But a few kilometers from the border, we were stopped again. The men at this barricade were drunk and violent. One of them smashed a glass bottle on the truck’s window and a drunken brawl soon. Taking advantage of the situation, our driver reversed and headed back while the rest of us turned the other way. Finally, 13 hours after I had left Patiala, I passed the signboard that said ‘Welcome to Delhi’.