As he surveyed his largely deserted village along India’s border with Pakistan, Kuldeep Singh cast his mind to his childhood when his home was on the frontline of a full-blown war between the two arch rivals.
“All of this reminds me of when I was a boy back in 1971, and I can now understand what my father must have felt like, sending me away to live with his relatives back then,” said the father of three. “My wife and kids are already getting restless to come back home... I’m also missing them but we don’t yet know what’s going to happen, so it’s better to wait another day or two.”
The 54-year-old farm labourer sent his wife and three children to live with relatives after a dramatic escalation of tensions between the two nuclear armed-rivals this week which saw India carry out a series of strikes on the Pakistani side of the Line of Control, a de facto border, in Kashmir.
The evacuation order was delivered over the loudspeaker from the local gurdwara (Sikh temple) in what is a mainly Sikh village.
The family’s village of Naushehra Dhalla is around 40 kilometres from Amritsar and barely a kilometre from the border.
Like Kashmir, Punjab, which was also divided between India and Pakistan when both gained their independence at the end of British colonial rule seven decades ago, became a battlefield when the two countries went to war in 1965 and 1971.
While the Indian government says it has no desire for a further escalation in the situation, it has nevertheless ordered thousands of villagers to move away from the border in case they once again become a theatre of war. While most of Naushehra Dhalla’s 4,500 residents have sought shelter elsewhere, a few male residents have stayed behind to look after their land and livestock and protect their property from potential looters.
Speaking to a reporter while huddled in the centre of the village, those who have remained all said they felt they couldn’t afford to do otherwise but had no illusions about what was at stake.
Theatre of war
Lakhvinder Singh, a 58-year-old tailor, said he too had vivid memories of the 1971 war when Naushehra Dhalla also emptied in a matter of hours and soldiers took over their mud-hut homes.
“The shelling and firing started around 5.15pm in the evening and we left by around 9.30pm the same night,” he said. “We could see the light of bombs and gunfire in the dark night from both the sides. It is tense at the moment but I don’t think there will be war — there shouldn’t be a war.”
“But if there is, it’s people like us who will lose the most. Even though we are happy for what our government has done with an attack on terrorists, we don’t think war will do us any good.”
Since the 1971 war, which led to Bangladesh’s (formerly East Pakistan) independence, both countries have become nuclear powers, which means that any sharp downturn in relations sends alarm bells ringing in diplomatic circles.
In another village even closer to the border, Sohan Singh said he could remember way back to partition when Punjab became the main setting for the largest mass migration in history before becoming a war zone.
Sohan Singh, who gave his age as “about 85”, said there was no way that he would take to his heels and desert the small village of Danoi Khurd also close to the border. “Where will we go? If we leave, we will starve,” said Sohan, surrounded by around two dozen male villagers who were all discussing the tensions. “I’ll be here for as long as I am alive.”