The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Guns booming or silent, migrants to march on

Jammu, Sept. 23: Pakistani guns boomed even this morning, but residents of the 100-odd villages along the border in Jammu are resolute. They are determined to cast their votes tomorrow, when Kashmir goes to polls for the second phase.

The more excited ones returned to their villages from relief camps today — they want to be the first to turn up at the booths. “The enemy will not rest in peace. We know they will fire tonight and tomorrow morning to frighten us away. But we are Jats. We braved the trauma of Partition and nothing will stop us from voting,” said Ujjagar Singh, the lambardar of Abdulian village, one of the last settlements on the border.

The multicoloured buntings and posters strung across this village give no idea that the next village, Nandpur, is five km away inside Pakistan and that the outward tranquillity has been disrupted time and again over the last five months. Mortar shells have partially damaged a few houses and injured a couple of persons.

The leaders of practically every party in the fray, barring the ruling National Conference, have visited Abdulian and other border villages that are part of the Suchetgarh Assembly constituency.

Even today, candidates from the Congress, the BJP and the People’s Democratic Party called on voters to boost their morale. Not that the pep talk was needed. “The biggest motivation for us is to throw out the National Conference,” said Gurdeep Singh of Chanduchak.

The anti-National Conference sentiment is both personal and political. The uprooted villagers were furious with chief minister Farooq Abdullah for throwing them into tents and overcrowded schoolrooms that passed off for relief camps with no cash dole or rations. Worse, the uncertainty on the border deprived them of a livelihood. Last year, most of their lands were cordoned off by electric fences while canals watering them were sandbagged to prevent infiltration.

“Punjab, too, has border villages but its chief minister was good enough to resettle the people in places which were away from the danger zone. He gave them facilities to restart farming. Here, we don’t exist for Abdullah,” said Captain Hukkam Singh of Abdulian.

The only “help” they got from the government was an amount of Rs 1,600 per family for one month and two kg of atta and rice for two months after which they were left to fend for themselves. The standing crop at the time of fencing was destroyed and since then, farmers have been unable to sow except for the lucky few whose land was away from the border. Many were hard put to find fodder for their cattle.

In a higher secondary school at R.S. Pura, about 20 km from Jammu, Satish Singh, who owns five acres of land in the border village of Korotana, narrated how he was forced to work on others’ land and even as a construction labourer.

Sardar Tarlok Singh, the People’s Democratic Party candidate from Suchetgarh, was the only politician to have helped provide food to the refugees for two months after they were uprooted. Party leader Mufti Mohammad Sayeed has promised them a regular supply of foodgrain if elected to power.

If some of the voters relate to Tarlok Singh at a personal level, many others root for the BJP as the only “truly nationalist” answer to the Muslims of the Valley. “We want to vote because the Muslims in the Valley too turn up in large numbers. The Hindus should not be left behind,” said Malka Singh of Chanduchak. “As it is Jammu is under-represented in the Assembly but at least there should be enough Hindu MLAs to speak on our behalf.”

What angered the peasants were two controversial moves by the Abdullah government. First, that migrants from Kashmir settled in Pakistan could reclaim their land and properties they left behind during Partition. Second, 40 per cent of the produce from land that belonged to migrants in Pakistan should be handed over to the government.

Paramjit Singh of Agrachak village summed up their anger. “My family, too, left behind so much land when they fled in 1947,” Singh said.

“But will the dictator in that country be as kind as Farooq and allow us to get back our properties'”

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