Amritsar: Sitting in Lahore, Pakistan, merely 59 km away from his home in Punjab’s Amritsar, Satbir Singh (60), his wife and three other relatives have been waiting to return to India for the last three months.
The group of five elderly people had gone to attend a wedding in Lahore on March 10 and then pay obeisance at the Kartarpur Sahib, Nankana Sahib and Panja Sahib gurdwaras. However, before they could come back, the Indian government announced a national lockdown in the wake of COVID-19 and the international border was sealed.
A businessman, Satbir said that him and his wife Jasmeet Kaur, his cousin Harjit Singh and Harjit’s wife Narinder Kaur, and Satbir’s sister-in-law Manvinder Kaur came to Lahore on NORI visas (No Objection to Return to India) but had to extend their stay.
Talking to The Wire, Satbir said that they were staying at the house of his relative, Amrik Singh, in Lahore’s PIA Colony. “All of us are elderly people. Not just me, even my sister-in-law is also suffering from heart disease. Our medicines are finished and we have not been able to get the same ones from medical stores in Lahore. The salts of the same medicines are different in Pakistan, as a result of which we cannot take them. Even the doctors were not willing to attend to us because of coronavirus cases,” he said.
The family members maintained that they appealed to the Indian High Commission, Islamabad, besides Prime Minister Narendra Modi, external affairs minister S. Jaishankar and Punjab chief minister Captain Amarinder Singh to consider their case on priority and send them back to India. “The embassy officials also conducted our COVID-19 tests and we have tested negative,” Satbir said.
Besides Sikhs and Punjabis, Kashmiri students in college or university education are also stuck in different Pakistani cities. Around 50-60 families from Punjab, Delhi and Maharastra are stranded in Peshawar alone.
Another elderly man, Santokh Singh from Alal village in Sangrur district, who too had come to attend a wedding, is stuck in Lahore. He also said that he came on a 30-day visa but following the lockdown, could not return.
In a video message, Santokh said, “I am short of money now and it is becoming difficult to manage my expenses. My medicines are finished too. Back home in India, my 95-year-old mother was solely dependent on me and is waiting for my return. After I reached Lahore on March 10, I had planned to go back to India within a few days but by that time the lockdown was announced.”
Similarly, Joginder Singh and his wife Surjit Kaur from Ludhiana are also stuck in Dera Hari Singh in Sheikhupura, Pakistan. Through a video message, they said, “If the government can bring Indian nationals stuck in the US, UK, Europe and Israel through the ‘Vande Bharat’ mission, why not bring us back too? All we require is permission from the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) to cross the Wagah-Attari border by foot. It is high time now, the government should respond.”
Amritsar MP Gurjeet Singh Aujla, who had taken up this matter with the Central and state government, said that there were approximately 500 people stuck in Pakistan, out of which 420 were Punjabis while 80 Kashmiris. “These people have already given an undertaking in the Indian High Commission in Pakistan that they want to go back to India,” he said.
Aujla said, “Those people who are on life-saving medication and suffering from heart disease, cancer, diabetes and blood pressure should be brought back from Pakistan immediately. We are waiting for the third phase of the Vande Bharat Mission through which Indian nationals stuck abroad are being brought back to India.”
Even Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) MLA Bikram Singh Majithia has taken up this matter with his sister and Union minister Harsimrat Kaur Badal.
Some lifesaving medicines for elderly people stuck in Pakistan were sent through Border Security Force (BSF) officials and the Pakistan Rangers. Sources said that after adequate checking at the border, the medicines were handed over to the respective people in Pakistan.
On bringing people back from Pakistan, sources said that the intelligence agencies were sceptical about bringing 500 people across the border. “Though Amritsar has adequate quarantine facilities available, de-briefing 500 people together was a major concern for intelligence agencies. We will solve this matter by next week,” sources added.
Kashmiri students stuck in Pakistan
A number of Kashmiri students complete their higher education in SAARC countries, particularly Pakistan and Bangladesh.
Speaking to The Wire, two Kashmiri MBBS students, Halima* and Farzana* from Fatima Jinnah Medical University, Lahore said that following the lockdown in Pakistan, only six female students were left in the entire varsity hostel. “We spoke to Indian High Commission officials, who informed us that there were 80 Kashmiri students stuck in Pakistan. A group of Kashmiri students had even reached Wagah border in mid-March but they were not allowed to cross over to India. Since then, we have been waiting,” they said.
Farzana said that though some of the varsity lecturers come to meet them but staying alone in the hostel is difficult. “Back home, my parents approached nearly everybody they know for assistance in Kashmir. They even wrote a letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and got a reply, but nothing happened after that,” she said.
Pleading with the government to evacuate them, Farzana said, “Interestingly, we jointly started the initiative of approaching the Indian Embassy officials to evacuate us. While those in Bangladesh reached home, we are still waiting.”