There has been no gunfire, no alert sirens, and no fighter jets dropping bombs. It is not wartime yet, but tens of thousands of villagers in lying in the border belt with Pakistan are already experiencing a war-like situation.
As the relations between India-Pakistan — the nuclear-armed neighbours — sizzle up, especially after India’s retaliatory surgical strikes on the terror launch pads across LoC, the Indian Army is bracing up for a possible escalation in the situation. Thousands of villagers in the border states of Punjab, Jammu, and Kashmir, Gujarat and Rajasthan are being relocated while a state of high alert was issued across Uttar Pradesh fearing retaliation from Pakistan. The Sashastra Seema Bal (SSB) also stepped-up up vigil along the Indo-Nepal border.
Punjab border villages evacuated
Following constant reports of ceasefire violation along LoC and amid apprehensions of the situation escalating across the border, over 4,00,000 people in Punjab’s border belt, comprising Amritsar, Tarn Taran, Ferozepur, Gurdaspur, Pathankot and Fazilka districts, have been evacuated from their homes to “safer areas”.
Residents in nearly 1,000 villages in these districts have been ordered by the authorities to evacuate following escalation of tension between India and Pakistan as the Army beefed up security across the length of Indian border.
“We loaded a lot of our belongings and household articles on our tractor-trolley. We have not yet decided where we will go. But we have to move out. The standing crop in our fields has to be harvested within the next 10 days. We hope this situation eases out soon,” farmer Sardul Singh of Amritsar district told IANS.
Punjab shares a 553-km international border with Pakistan. The entire border is marked by an electrified barbed wire fence.
The Sikh holy city of Amritsar, which lies only 30 km from the international border, too seemed to be prepared for any eventuality, including war.
Hospitals in the border districts have been asked to keep some beds in the emergency wards vacant for any contingency. The leave of police personnel, medical staff and others maintaining emergency services have been cancelled. Electricity of border villages and towns will also be cut-off, according to CNN-News18.
In some of the border villages, which are located across the rivers in the border belt, Border Security Force (BSF) and Indian Army personnel could be seen ferrying people, including children and the elderly, and their belongings to safer areas on Thursday and Friday.
“There is nothing to panic about. The evacuation is being done as a preventive measure. Arrangements are being made to accommodate the evacuated people,” Isha Kalia, Deputy Commissioner of Fazilka district in south-west Punjab, said. Kalia visited various evacuation centres in her district and talked to people accommodated there.
But villagers said that there were some panic and anxiety among them. According to CNN-News18, some villagers have refused to move stating that they have nowhere else to go. “Punjabis have faced wars before and we will see whatever happens again… Yaha se uthenge to jayenge kaha ji (where will we go from here),” a resident told CNN-News18.
“Old timers have been through the 1965 and 1971 wars with Pakistan. Those days were bad. But Punjabis have always faced wars valiantly. For the newer generation, who have not seen wars, the evacuation is a new thing. Many youngsters are worried about what will happen,” Waryam Singh of Ferozepur district, who is 70-plus and lived through the 1965 and 1971 wars, told IANS.
The villagers who have been evacuated were headed either to the homes of relatives and friends in “safer zones” or opted for camps organised by the district authorities.
With arrangements to accommodate hundreds of people at each of the 45 relief camps having to be made within a few hours, the evacuated people complained of mismanagement and chaos.
Local gurudwaras and social organisations also chipped in, within the past 12 hours, to arrange food and water for the displaced people.
Along with all roads and paths in the border belt, any mode of transport available was being used by the people to move out with their belongings. The authorities also arranged buses at some places to ferry people. Army convoys, with artillery, moved towards the border with Pakistan on Thursday and Friday.
Army on high alert in Punjab
The Indian Army, the Indian Air Force (IAF) and the Border Security Force (BSF) were put on high alert in Punjab and neighbouring states to counter any escalation that may follow under the current stand-off between the two nations.
Army convoys, carrying artillery guns, could be seen moving towards the border belt in Punjab on Thursday and Friday in the preparation of thwarting any move from Pakistan to retaliate the LoC strike. Leaves of Army personnel deployed on the Western front have also been cancelled with immediate effect, according to CNN-News18.
The IAF has been put on high alert with forward air bases on the western front in full preparedness. The IAF bases in the region include Halwara and Adampur (both in Punjab), Ambala (in Haryana) and Hindon (near Delhi).
Air Force fighter jets carried out sorties over some parts of Punjab as a preventive measure.
The International Border (IB) in the Punjab frontier is manned by the BSF which is on maximum alert following the latest developments at the LoC.
Army units were also on high alert in Punjab. The army presence in Punjab is substantial, spread in Mamoon cantonment near Pathankot, the 11 Corps based in Jalandhar, the 10 Corps in Bathinda in south-west Punjab and army units in Ferozepur, Amritsar and other places.
The Western Command, headquartered at Chandimandir near Chandigarh, is monitoring the situation along the border with Pakistan in Punjab sector, a senior Army officer said.
The Ambala-based 2 Corps, a strike corps, has also been put on high alert along with the Hisar-based 33 Armoured Division, sources said.
UP on high alert, increased vigil along Indo-Nepal border
Security was heightened in all districts in Uttar Pradesh, fearing retaliation from Pakistan while the SSB was also asked to step up vigil along the Indo-Nepal border.
Special focus was on the security of historical monuments, tourist destinations, public places like railway and bus stations, malls, shopping complexes and film theatres, an official told IANS.
Additional police force was deployed in the peripheral parameters of cantonments in Lucknow, Agra, Kanpur and Meerut, and military installations and airports were put under close watch.
Special checking operations were initiated to screen vehicles on the border and other sensitive areas like Maharajganj, Bahraich, Gonda and Gorakhpur. “Other than scaling up the visible security, we have also sensitised the intelligence system and are keeping an eye on every activity,” an official said.
India carried out surgical strikes on seven terror launch pads inflicting “significant casualties”across the LoC on the 28 and 29 September, seen as a reprisal for the Uri attack. The Uri Army base was attacked by heavily-armed Pakistani terrorists on September 18 in which 18 soldiers were killed. India has maintained that the Pakistan-based terror outfit Jaish-e-Mohammed was behind the attack.