f Jati Umra is an image of prosperity in Punjab, Amritsar’s Bedi Chhanna village, just two kilometres from the international border, is the opposite. Jati Umra has well-carpeted roads, pukka houses as well as constant supply of water and electricity. But the road disappears 5 kms before one reaches Bedi Chhanna. Since monsoon has been plenty in Punjab this year, the dirt track turns treacherous as we approach the house of Pyari Devi.
Her son Nanak Singh was just seven years old in 1984, when he went wandering into the fields. This was a time before border fences and the child inadvertently crossed over into Pakistan. Pyari Devi has not seen her son since. “It’s been 33 years and my son has lived in jail. Everyone knows this and yet nobody has done anything about it. My son grew up without a mother. I don’t want him to die without one.”
“Pakistani authorities said back then that they would only release him if India’s Border Security Force (BSF) released a few Pakistani buffaloes that had strayed into India. Is that the value of my son’s life? Less than a buffalo!”
It’s been 33 years and my son has lived in jail. Everyone knows this and yet nobody has done anything about it.
- Pyari Devi
In 1999, the family got a word that their son had been found in Lahore’s Kot Lakhpatrai jail. They were asked to come to Wagah border to pick him up. But Nanak, says his mother, was sent back from the border owing to a clerical mistake. ‘Nanak Singh’ was spelled as ‘Kakkar Singh’. It broke Pyari Devi’s heart to come so close to seeing her son and then being told to go back.
eshav Kohli’s house in Amritsar’s old town is a shrine to himself. The walls outside his house are plastered with posters declaring him as the candidate from Apna Punjab Party, a lesser known political outfit. He fought and lost the 2017 Punjab Assembly polls. Inside is a giant portrait of Bhagat Singh, his “idol”, although it is another matter that he confesses he hasn’t read any of Bhagat Singh’s writings. Kohli, who works as a physical education trainer in Amritsar city, set up the Independent Students Federation (ISF) to “articulate the demands of the youth”.
As we walk through the village, a faint sound of news playing out from a television catches our attention. The voice of the female news anchor has this chaste Urdu tone to it.
In 2015, he heard of Nanak Singh’s case. “I heard about the case and met the family. I decided to fight for their cause. First, we paid respect to Nawaz Sharif’s ancestor by laying a holy sheet on his grave. We hoped that Sharif would help us get Nanak Singh back. But when Pakistan denied it, we went back to Jati Umra and removed the sheet. We burnt a Pakistani flag near the grave and chanted anti-Pakistan slogans, says Kohli.
You won’t believe the way locals reacted, he adds, “It felt as if I was standing in Pakistan. They attacked us and chanted pro-Pakistan slogans.”
But Dilbag Singh, a resident of Jati Umra, says, “Sons of my village have served in the Indian Army. If someone wants to defame us for political gain, we will reject the lies. It’s not a crime to want good relations between India and Pakistan. We want Nanak Singh to come back home. But we will not let anybody ruin the harmony in our village.”
FOR JATI UMRA, NAWAZ CAN DO NO WRONG
Gyan Singh says, “Una de kol kakh vi na si. Ajj vekho, sadde pind da munda Pradhan Mantri ban gaya. Fakhar mehsoos hunda hai es gal te
(They had nothing. Look, today a boy from our village has become Prime Minister. I feel proud at this)”.
Never mind that Nawaz Sharif was born and brought up in Lahore. But how does his disqualification as Pakistan PM over the Panama leaks sit with locals here? “These are all siyasi gallan (political matters). What do we know about that? But we know that both Nawaz and his brother are honest men,” says Hira Singh.
Is this the end of Nawaz Sharif’s topsy-turvy political journey? Not if Hira Singh is to be believed. “There is an election in Pakistan in 2018. Our prayers are with him. If our prayers can help him evade the death penalty, they can definitely help him win again.”