How Indian Govt Rescued A Dalit Boy From Border Village Who Accidentally Entered And Got Jailed In Pakistan; A Ground Report
Ten days ago, Gemra returned to India. He entered through the Attari-Wagah border in Punjab’s Amritsar district.
Gemra has told the media that besides him, the Karachi jail had around 700 other Indians who were brutally tortured.
On the intervening night of 4 and 5 November 2020, a young man from a village at the western border of India in Rajasthan unwittingly jumped off the fence to land in Pakistan.
He walked up to the nearest cluster of houses he could see, and asked the residents for food. They fed him bajra roti and curd — the staple breakfast in the area.
While the starving man filled himself up, Pakistan Rangers showed up at the house. The man told the paramilitary officers he was Gemra Ram, aged 18, and lived two-three kilometre away.
Pakistan Rangers promptly took Gemra away for questioning.
Back in his village on this side of the border, there was no sign of Gemra for several days. His father Jama Ram checked with his previous employer in Jodhpur city, but found no clue.
Gemra’s brothers launched a search for him. They asked in nearby villages, but he could not be found. After ten days, officers from the Indian Border Security Force (BSF) informed the family that he had been jailed in Pakistan’s Karachi city.
It was astonishing news. Villagers had not heard of such a thing. A local officer from the BSF, who asked to not be identified by name due to protocol, told Swarajya that it was an unusual case in his career of more than a decade as well.
Gemra’s house is located in 'Kumharon Ka Teeba', one of the several villages along Rajasthan’s 1000-km border with Pakistan. It falls in Barmer district; post office is 'Ramzan Ki Gafan'.
The village nearest to Kumharon Ka Teeba across the border is 'Pabban Jo Paar', which falls in Tharparkar district of Pakistan’s Sindh province. That was the village Gemra had reached.
From a high-altitude point, the fencing that separates the two countries looks like the proverbial line in the sand, running haphazardly through the sprawling Thar desert. Without binoculars, the first settlements in Pakistan are not visible.
The officer told this correspondent that had any BSF personnel spotted Gemra that night, he would have fired at him.
“He somehow escaped the radar, even of Pakistan Rangers,” the officer said. “But landing alive in Pakistan is no good news,” the officer added, recounting experiences of Indians tortured at the hands of Pakistani security agencies if taken as war prisoners or suspected spies.
“Nails are pulled off – that is most common. They are also known to feed finely ground glass mixed in food, which works as a slow poison. And, of course, the brutal beatings. I cannot share more as you are a lady,” the officer said.
Gemra’s family was at their wits’ end. They did not know what to do, who to approach. There was just no way to contact Gemra. Was he being tormented? Would he ever return alive?
Gemra had just turned 18, still went to school and had begun working as a labourer in Jodhpur city as schools were closed due to Covid-related lockdown. His father and elder brothers tended to a small agricultural land they own.
On their patch in the arid Thar desert, they grow limited crops such as Bajra, Moong, Guar Fali and Moth Dal, which is just sufficient for the family’s needs. When temperatures touch an unbearable 50 degrees in the peak of summer, the men are forced to temporarily migrate to cities to work as daily wagers.
At any point of time, the family has no more than Rs 5,000 in savings, they said. How were they ever going to fight for their son’s return, they wondered.
Luckily for them, the case reached the Member of Parliament of Barmer, Kailash Choudhary, who escalated it to the foreign affairs ministry. Thus began months of correspondence between the Indian Ministry of External Affairs and Pakistan, with regular reminders by Choudhary, who is also Minister of State for Agriculture and Farmers’ Welfare.
Ten days ago, Gemra returned to India. He entered through the Attari-Wagah border in Punjab’s Amritsar district, which is currently the only crossing-point open between India and Pakistan for civilians.
On the day Gemra reached the Wagah border, that is on 14 February, the Facebook account of Choudhary of him with the caption, “Welcome to the homeland Gameraram Ji”.
A visit to Gemra Ram’s village
Kumharon ka Teeba is a small settlement of 40-45 houses. Four houses belong to Meghwals, who are Hindu, while other families are Muslims belonging to Royma jaati.
Roymas identify as Rajputs and use ‘Khan’ as their surname. The Meghwal jaati, to which Gemra Ram belongs, comes under scheduled castes.
On that fateful day, Gemra had returned from Jodhpur after several months.
Satta Ram narrated what happened: “I was in Gujarat, where I worked as a labourer. Around 2.30 am, I received a phone call from our neighbour Chhagna Ram that Gemra had trespassed into his house to meet his daughter”.
Satta told Chhagna to hand over Gemra to police if he felt the need. On his part, Satta returned to his village and began searching for his brother without telling anything to his parents. He could not find Gemra, neither in the village nor in the adjoining villages.
“On 14 November, BSF officers came to our house and told us that Gemra had gone to Pakistan”.
Satta went to the local police and filed a missing person’s report as advised. He was soon contacted by MP Choudhary’s office.
“I join my hands and thank all the ministers and officers who helped bring my brother back from Pakistan. We are all very grateful to them,” Satta said.
Asked about Gemra’s stay in Pakistan, Satta said, “Only Gemra can tell what happened with him”.
Gemra has not yet returned home. He did visit the house a week ago, but stayed inside the police vehicle and the visit lasted only five minutes.
“Ever since he returned, he has been in custody of the government. Agencies are questioning him,” says Satta.
On the day he showed up at the house, the family did not know we was coming. Gemra’s mother saw him and instantly fainted. In the chaos that followed, the family could hardly talk to Gemra.
Besides being interrogated by the agencies regarding his Pakistan experience, Gemra is also being questioned why he had trespassed into his neighbour’s house that night. The neighbour, Chhagna Ram, has alleged that Gemra had come to meet his daughter but he ran away when Chhagna woke up.
Gemra’s stint in Pakistan
In his only interaction with the media so far, which took place briefly in Barmer a week ago when the Barmer police brought him from Amritsar, Gemra in the first few months in the Karachi jail.
He said he was hung upside down through ropes, his eyes covered, and beaten up badly. He could not make out between day and night.
As per correspondence accessed by Swarajya, in the beginning of 2021, a case was filed against Gemra at Karachi’s Mithadar police station for violating the Foreigners Act.
By this time, things were already moving ahead for him through efforts in India as seen in this letter by the High Commission of India to Pakistan sent to the Indian Ministry of Foreign Affairs on 19 February 2021.
On 21 August 2021, the sessions court in Karachi sentenced Gemra to six-months imprisonment for violating the Foreigners Act while ordering that he would be deported to India after his jail time.
Kailash Choudhary, speaking to this correspondent in Barmer this week, said that he was extremely happy that a poor young man from his constituency, who accidentally landed in Pakistan, had returned home and managed it in a short duration.
Choudhary credited Prime Minister Narendra Modi and External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar for Gemra’s return.
The BSF officer that this correspondent talked to, said that Gemra told the agencies that after crossing the fence, he slept for a few hours. Then he walked up to Pabban Jo Paar, hoping to be fed and then hop back to his side of the border.
“He was clearly young and naive,” the officer said, while adding that Gemra is “very lucky to be back”.
Like Kumharon ka Teeba and the surrounding villages on the Indian side of the border, Pabban Jo Paar, which is the nearest village on the Pakistan side, is home to primarily Meghwals, Bhils and Roymas.
The BSF officer said that the Hindu jaatis in these Tharparkar villages have largely converted to Islam including Meghwals.
As it turns out, Hindu Meghwals are not on talking terms with Muslim Roymas in Kumharon Ka Teeba.
“Roymas consider themselves superior to us,” says Satta.
A few years ago, Satta’s elder brother befriended a Royma girl. The girl was promptly married in her community and Satta’s family faced “social boycott” from the dominant Roymas, which continues.
A social boycott in the village meant the family was no longer invited for any function by the Roymas or helped in need. After Gemra disappeared, Satta’s family was thus on their own.
Gemra has told the media that besides him, the Karachi jail had around 700 other Indians who were similarly tortured.
Readers may recall that in September, a man from Gujarat, named Kuldeep Yadav, returned to India from a Pakistan jail . Along with him, another man named Shambhu, a native of Jammu, returned to India after 12 years of imprisonment in Pakistan.
Perhaps the most known such case is of Sarabjit Singh Attwal, a resident of the border village of Bhikhiwind in Tarn Taran district of Punjab, who died in Pakistan even as his family struggled hard for his return.
His family as well as the Indian government maintains till date that Sarabjit was a farmer who had accidentally strayed to Pakistan through an unmarked border in 1990, and was wrongly convicted by the Supreme Court of Pakistan for being part of a series of bomb blasts in Lahore and Faisalabad that year.
Sarabjit was initially arrested for illegally entering Pakistan. His family remained clueless about his whereabouts for nine months until they received letter from him informing them about his conviction.
In the Pakistani jail, Sarabjit was attacked by fellow prisoners and died in 2013. A Bollywood film on the case, titled Sarbjit, released in 2016, featuring Randeep Hooda and Aishwarya Rai.
Migration across the Sindh border
Ironically, Gemra’s family had migrated to India merely 50 years ago.
Unlike Punjab and Bengal that saw massive human displacement and bloodbath during the Partition in 1947, the pastoral communities of the Thar desert in western Rajasthan and northwestern Gujarat did not see much disturbance.
Seeped in Sindhi culture, Hindus and Muslims shared customs, beliefs and language.
For as long as two decades after the Partition, villagers freely moved across the border, which was not physically demarcated. They married in their jaati groups in villages on either side of the border, and took wedding processions there as well.
As Jodhpur-activist Hindu Singh Sodha , many residents were not even aware that the Partition had taken place, until the Indo-Pakistan wars of 1965 and 1971 changed it all.
Both wars saw massive displacement of Hindus to the Indian side mainly from Sindh. The next wave of displacement came in 1992 after the Babri mosque demolition, followed by another wave post Kargil war in 1999. These migrations were accompanied by rising Sunni supremacy and extremism in Pakistan.
Besides these major migrations, Sindhi Hindus keep coming to India in batches of 20-30 people even today.
A New Delhi-based activist named Hari Om Sahu, who was recently in news for fighting a successful court battle to grant legal electricity connection to a refugee camp in New Delhi’s Adarsh Nagar (Swarajya covered it here), told this correspondent that he goes to Wagah border every second week to receive a new batch.
These people come to India on a pilgrimage visa but stay put as they do not wish to return, citing religious persecution. It is in the Sindh province of Pakistan that most of the cases of abduction and forced conversion of Hindu girls are reported.
Activists such as Sahu help them settle in any of the several camps in Delhi and various cities of Rajasthan. The term ‘Pakistani Hindus’ refers to mainly these Sindhi pastoral communities who worship Hindu deities.
The Indian government began fencing the borders with Pakistan in the 1980s, a process that is still not complete and is continuously upgraded. In this area of Rajasthan, the fencing work was carried out in late 1990s.
Gemra’s grandmother Saroop said she shifted to 'Kumharon Ka Teeba' in 1971 from a village which is now in Pakistan and is about 20 kilometre away. She does not remember the name of her village.
She said, “Everybody around us said it’s time to leave. We were forced to leave our land and pack everything in a hurry to come here. We travelled on foot and on animals.”
The family was given an agricultural field by the government. The land is located right at the border; Gemra crossed it before he jumped the border fencing.
The BSF officer said that villagers who have a field at the border are provided ‘kisan guards’ by the BSF. No villager is allowed to far without the kisan guards.
Saroop spoke in Dhati, a dialect of Sindhi, which this correspondent could not understand but Satta translated it. Satta speaks and writes in Hindi.
So does Gemra, who sent the family a letter written in Devanagari in 2021. The letter came through an unknown Whatsapp number on Satta’s phone as an image (See below).
In the letter, Gemra said that he was extremely sorry for behaving irresponsibly in love, an act which must have brought great shame to his family, and he was ready to face any punishment on his return.
On the top of the letter was written ‘Jai Bhim’ and ‘Namo Buddhay’. Satta said these greetings were not used by them and somebody else must have written the letter.
The family worships Ramdev Pir, a 14th century ruler believed to be a reincarnation of Lord Krishna and is said to have had miraculous powers. The main temple of his followers is in Jaisalmer.
All Hindu houses in this Sindhi belt typically have a temple. It’s a gated structure that is tall enough for one person to sit inside, and has pictures of Ramdev Pir and a few Hindu deities Such as Lord Ganesha placed neatly on a wooden stool.
As this correspondent was preparing to leave the village, Gemra’s bua (father’s sister) arrived to pay the family a visit. She had brought a box of ladoos to celebrate Gemra’s return.
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