Comrades of the night

  • Vikramdeep Johal, Hindustan Times, Chandigarh
  • Updated: Aug 10, 2014 15:42 IST

Raatin milan na aayin ve, pind pehra lagda, aevin na vaddiya jaayin ve, pind pehra lagda (Don’t come to meet me tonight... don’t get hacked by mistake, they’re keeping a vigil in the village).
From a Babbu Mann song

Who says only owls are wedded to the dark? There are other birds of the night, too, who stay active while the world sleeps, even if they aren’t inspired by Nehru’s India-awakening speech. On my way home after the graveyard shift, there’s a sight that soothes my sore eyes: a handful of lathi-clutching villagers, on guard during the all-night theekri pehra.

This is Chappar Chiri, a typically sleepy village on Mohali’s outskirts which came alive three centuries ago when Sikh warrior Banda Singh Bahadur defeated the mighty Mughals. Commemorating that historic battle is a made-by-Badals memorial, proudly scraping the starry sky and so well-lit at 2 am that, for a moment, you feel like believing the Punjab government’s ‘power-surplus’ mega-dream. However, it’s obvious that no memorial will ever be built to remember the mini battles these common villagers have to fight, night after night.

While my biggest concerns at office are a messed-up headline or a missed deadline, these fellows have to put their lives on the line against robbers and cattle thieves – who may or may not be wearing the dreaded kale kachhe (black underpants).

“It’s great that you’re guarding your own village in near-darkness,” I say patronisingly. The concept of community policing seems too-good-to-be-true to a self-absorbed ‘urbanator’ like me, who’s got used to the whistles of a uniformed watchman in the wee hours.

“We don’t really do it by choice,” admits a middle-aged man, trying to puncture the aura I’m building around them. “It’s the official chowkidar (watchman) who allots duties. No man is spared, not even the elderly,” he adds, pointing to the two frail, old men standing not-so-erectly beside him. Both seem incapable of frightening even the most chicken-hearted of thieves.

The ‘spokesman’ clarifies that here too, like in other village affairs, there’s a clear-cut pecking order. Those picked for the unpaid vigil are mostly farm labourers or daily-wagers, while the landlords and well-off farmers sleep tight. “What does the chowkidar do?” I enquire. “He takes a roll call around 10 pm to ensure that there are no absentees. Then he makes himself scarce.”

What about the cops? When do they come into the picture: before, during or after the robbery? The man replies with a wry smile that, thanks to the sarkari memorial, policemen have started making an occasional guest appearance around midnight. Then the men in khaki too disappear conveniently, leaving them to fend for themselves. Of course, a sea change occurs whenever there’s a state-level function in their backyard. During those precious few ‘VIP’ days, cops virtually outnumber the villagers and the theekri pehra becomes redundant. Every resident then goes to sleep at night rich or poor, upper or lower caste.

Rather than trying to impress me with cooked-up tales of bravery, the trio candidly denies having ever faced or caught any robber. Spotted lovebirds? No, no, they laugh it off. Youngsters of their village are too beebay (well-behaved) to indulge in such activities, they claim. Babbu Mann’s hit number, however, makes me think otherwise.

With my cab driver getting restless, I take leave of the three-man army and set off for my cocooned but not crime-free urban world, where another sleepless half-night awaits me despite the paid security and lifetime exemption from pehra duty.

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