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Una receives its sons with open arms

Ehtasham Khan in Una, Himachal Pradesh | September 03, 2004 23:09 IST

Thousands of slogan-shouting men, women and children on Friday thronged both sides of the road leading to Una to welcome Antaryami Bains and Tilak Raj - two of the three Indian truck drivers released by abductors in Iraq.

Standing in an open jeep along with two Himachal Pradesh politicians and some fellow villagers, the two waved at people who fought tooth and nail for their release while they were thousands of kilometres away in an unknown location in a war-ravaged country.

Tears rolled down Antaryami's eyes while an unending smile framed Tilak Raj's face as the people cheered and clapped.

About three hours before Antaryami's arrival, villagers of Dehlan started coming out on the Delhi-Una road.

Antaryami was born and brought up in Dehlan while Tilak Raj hails from the neighbouring village of Dharampur. Almost everybody knows them since childhood.

The duo left for Kuwait in December last year to earn a living, leaving behind their wives and children.

Ever since a group called the 'Islamic Secret Army - Holders of Black Banners' abducted them on July 21, the villagers had started their own struggle for their release.

They sat on relay hunger strikes, blocked roads for 72 hours and organised special prayers.

So a victory procession was inevitable when the two reached home safely.

Antaryami's father and relatives received him at the Delhi airport while Tilak Raj was escorted by his wife and three children.

At around 4 pm when they reached Himachal Gate -- about five kilometres from Antaryami's village on the New Delhi-Una road - the two were shifted to an open jeep decorated with flowers. Hordes of village elders presented them colourful garlands.

A truck full of people and young men on motorbikes were waiting to receive them at Himachal Gate. They exchanged sweets, danced to the beats of drums and chanted slogans praising the government.

The procession, led by nine motorbikes arranged in three rows, brought Antaryami and Tilak Raj's jeep to a gurudwara where slogans like 'Bole So Nihal, Sat Sri Akal' rent the air.

Wearing a white shirt and black trousers, Antaryami was almost covered with garlands. Tilak Raj had donned a white kurta-pyjama and looked more like a politician.

At the gurudwara, about a thousand women and children had blocked the main road for about three hours. Policemen posted all along the route seemed helpless to control the people.

A small girl was heard shouting: "<I>Antaryami pe daya karo</I> (<I>Have mercy on Antaryami</I>)." She apparently didn't understand the meaning of the slogan and that Antaryami had already reached home.

The procession stayed at the gurudwara for about 30 minutes. The two were taken to the sanctum sanctorum to offer prayers. After the ardas, they were gifted saffron turbans.

Antaryami could barely manage to speak. "I can't tell you how happy I am. Thanks to all of you," he said.

Tilak Raj was quite outspoken and interacted with the journalists with a smile. "I was quite hopeful. Though there was a time when I thought this was my end, something kept cheering me from inside.

"When I saw on television my people protesting for me and blocking the road for me, it gave me a lot of hope."

As they came out of the gurudwara, dozens of women and children ran towards them to shake hands and present garlands.

The caravan then moved at a snail's pace towards another gurudwara. Countless came forward to shake hands and the duo did not disappoint anyone.

Women rushed to the rooftops and balconies of their homes along the road to see them.

"They have got a new life. It's a rebirth." This was a common statement on everybody's lips. "May their children live long," said Santo Devi, an elderly woman.

State Industry Minister Kuldeep Kumar and legislator Mukesh Agnihotri then took the procession to the municipality park in the centre of the town. It was decorated with lights from all sides. In brief speeches, Antaryami and Tilak thanked everybody.

After shaking hands with dozens of people, they left for their respective homes.

Antaryami's mother Pago Devi had not eaten anything since morning. She hugged him and cried till other women took her away. "I will not let you go again. I had told you not to go. You didn't listen to me," she said in choked voice.

He then asked for his 11-month-old daughter Sukhdeep Kaur and kissed her. But his wife Kusum could not come out in the open to see him because of a huge crowd that followed him to his house.

At Tilak Raj's house in Dharampur, his neighbours had arranged for tea and snacks for the visitors in a makeshift tent. They welcomed him with garlands. Loud music in the background gave the whole atmosphere a festive look.

As the sun went down somewhere in the mountains behind Tilak Raj's small hamlet, he also went inside his two-room house to sit close to his near and dear ones.

"I don't know about my future," he said. "I don't want to think about it. I want to live my today."


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