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June 25, 1999


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The Rediff Interview/Inspector General J P Birdi

'In 54 out of 200 villages, the people have started moving back'

Inspector General (border) of Punjab Police, J P Birdi, is one of the few officers from the state police cadre who has served for a long time in the border area. During the height of militancy in Punjab, Birdi acquired a reputation for honesty, diligence and dedication.

With militancy at a low ebb in the state at the moment, Birdi now devotes his attention to other serious matters. When this correspondent met Birdi, he had just returned from a trip to some of the border villages in Amritsar district where he had gone with the deputy commissioner of Amritsar, Narinderjit Singh.

In an exclusive interview to Onkar Singh, Birdi claimed that rumour-mongers have misled the people and that's why they had started migrating from the border areas. "We are now dealing with the situation and impressing upon the villagers to return to their homes as there is little likelihood of the Kargil conflict turning into a full-fledged war involving other parts of India too,'' he assured.

Why has there been such large scale migration from the border villages of Punjab in the past few weeks?

The credit for this should go to the rumour-mongers who spread all sorts of tales in the villages and take the villagers for a ride. These elements are mischief-makers and they know if the villagers panic they can get money out of them.

When the talks between the foreign ministers of India and Pakistan broke down two weeks back, the villagers started wondering if the fighting in Kargil would extend to others parts of India as well. As Pakistan moved its army close to the border, the people really panicked. They thought that war would break out any moment and hence they should start moving to safer places.

You know how villagers imitate each other. Somebody started moving his household things to another place as a precautionary measure, then a few others followed him. And soon it snowballed into an exodus.

How many villages have thus been affected? Is it true that over a quarter of a million people have left their homes?

I have seen newspaper reports which say that more than 250,000 people have left their villages and moved to Tarn Taran, Amritsar and other places. Let me assure you, that the number of people who have migrated is not even half of the figure mentioned in the news reports.

According to figures available with us, 90,000 people have left their villages in the last few weeks. Even here I would like to make one thing very clear: not everybody in these villages has left. At least one member in each household is staying back to look after his house and fields.

Which are the worst affected areas?

According to our information the worst-affected are the Khem Karan and Khalra sectors. People living in these sectors suffered heavily in the 1965 and 1971 wars because they had to vacate their lands and houses. Since they had vacated their houses in a hurry, they were looted when they fell into enemy hands. Perhaps that is why they did not want to take any risk this time and left their villages as soon as they heard the rumours of war.

What steps has the district administration taken to assure the villagers that they are safe in their villages and there is no threat of war in Punjab?

We are doing our bit to assure people that they are secure and they should live in their villages without any inhibition. I have just come back after holding one such meeting in the Khalra sector.

These meetings have already started showing results and in some villages the people have started moving back. In one more week we hope there would be substantial improvement in the situation and more and more families would return to their homes in various villages. I have just received information that in 54 of a total of about 200 villages the people have started moving back. This is a good sign.

Are you providing protection to those who are still living in their villages?

Of course we are doing that. We have special police pickets in all the 200 villages on the Indo-Pak border. We have strengthened our posts in the border villages and additional forces have been sent there to ensure better policing.

Special attention is being given to those villages which are right on the border. Some unscrupulous elements have been charging heavily from those who shifted their household things from one place to another. Keeping these complaints in mind we have set up police assistance booths to help the villagers.

What is the ground level situation as far as militancy is concerned?

Though militancy has been curbed substantially, there have been a few instances of militant activity in the Ferozepur sector. They tried to smuggle some RDX into the state but were caught well in time before they could do any damage.

The Babbar Khalsa International in particular has been trying to activate erstwhile militants but they have not met with any success. Secondly, we were able to seize all the consignments which were brought into the state by the militants. They tried various routes to smuggle in RDX but we managed to nab them each time they tried a new route.

What are the former militants doing? Are you keeping a tab on them?

We are keeping an eye on them but by and large most of them have joined the mainstream and are happily married and earning their bread and butter through honest means. A majority of them have uttered a firm 'no' to offers to go back to militancy. 'Thank you very much. We are not interested in your offer and we would like to live our lives the way we want to,' is their response. This is a good sign.

Do you think Punjab will be back to its good old days soon?

The state has already started looking up in almost all spheres of life. I have no doubt that the good old days would soon be back in the state. We should not bother about an incident here and there.

These are the handiwork of Muslim fundamentalists, particularly those belonging to Lashkar-e-Toiba and Hizbul Mujahideen. Pakistan does not want to see a peaceful India. That's why they keep doing some mischief or the other. These aberrations will continue.

Are you satisfied that the situation is under control?

Yes, the situation is under control and there is nothing to be alarmed about. The nation can rest assured on this. In any case we have not lowered our guard and utmost vigil is continuing. We are determined to deal with the militants or Inter Services Intelligence agents with a firm hand.

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