For 22 years, this little border town of Punjab had been waiting for its son to come home from a Pakistani jail. Late on Thursday night, he came, but in a coffin.
Around 9pm, an Indian Air Force helicopter carrying the body of Sarabjit Singh touched down at a makeshift helipad 8km away.
Bhikhiwind had woken up to the news of Singh’s death at a Lahore hospital and it had been simmering in rage. The Punjab government’s promise of a state funeral and the announcement of a three-day mourning had failed to abate it.
Shutting shops, schools and colleges, the residents had held protests through the day, slamming both India and Pakistan. Effigies of both countries had been burnt.
But as Singh’s body was received by his sister Dalbir Kaur, the mood was sombre. The town that had been rent with slogans had fallen silent.
Even the presence of Union minister Preneet Kaur, Punjab deputy chief minister Sukhbir Singh Badal, minister Bikram Singh Majithia and state Congress chief Partap Bajwa – who brought the body from Amritsar – failed to stir the hundreds who had gathered.
“My friend disappeared 22 years ago, but there was always hope that he would return. Today I lost everything, “said Satpal Singh, who had been spending sleepless nights since news of the attack on Singh in Kot Lakhpat jail came.
“I blame the Indian government more than Pakistan,” said the man who was also Singh’s next-door neighbour. “Pakistan had always been lying but India could have saved him.”
From the helipad, Singh’s body was taken straight to the Civil Hospital, Patti, for a second postmortem examination. The funeral is to be held on Friday.
Back at Singh’s home, as preparations for the last rites began, his nephew Bachchittar said, “This house has been waiting for 22 years. That wait ended today in a most painful manner. India needs to take responsibility for being a soft state”.