Guarding our families and land

My uncles Daljit, Jaswant, Harpal, with me as a child. Muktsar, Punjab. 1990

Image and Narrative points contributed by Dr. Harman Singh Gill, Rajasthan

This photograph is from the late 1990 at my paternal village near Sri Muktsar Sahib, a south west city in Punjab. I am not sure who took it, but it would have been developed in Muktsar. Here I am as a little boy in the arms of my uncle Jaswant.

Ours was an agricultural family, who like many others or decades, if not centuries, had owned and tilled lands for grain. However, since the 1970s the Insurgent militancy in Punjab had begun to disturb the peace of the villages and towns, and by 1990 it was at its peak even though between 1987 and 1991, Punjab had been placed under the President’s rule. Law & order was in a complete disarray.

Militants as well as young and unemployed ruffians roamed around state sides wreaking havoc. And it was a common practice for them to ask for food from village folks, seek protection, and forcefully demand ‘donations’ for ‘the cause’. If anyone dare refused, they were harassed or even worse, killed. The same fate befell our family.

Most village folk had after a while given up on any state or governmental help, because any help was not quite forthcoming and eventually people decided to take matters of protection in their own hand, my uncles included. They were dashing young men with an appetite for courage and duty. Daljit, my uncle on the left had only recently completed his civil engineering, and the other uncles were farmers.

One night in the winter of 1990, a group of three to four militants started calling us out and firing their guns. Not many in India know this, but it is common custom in Punjab for people, especially in villages, to own licensed guns for protection. My uncles too had their own arms and decided to face the militants and defend their home . The high walls of our village home provided a good defense and vantage points.

And then the cross fire began, albeit it was a short exchange because one of the militants was hit by a bullet and they immediately retreated. Thereafter, my uncles began to patrol the household everyday for the next few months as precaution. Each hour of the day and night they would take turns to guard the home, and even farming was done under the protective gaze of aimed rifles from rooftops. Fortunately, the levels of tension eventually subsided in our area. But we would often hear that northern areas of Punjab were deeply affected and suffered high levels of violence and extortion.

It is possible that many photographs like these were taken as a display of pride and strength, because guns were common among land-lording households and many did have hot-shot cameras. The matter of family protection was a matter of pride worth photographing.

Daljit Singh eventually migrated to the US, while Jaswant and Harpal still live in the village with their families, supervising their land they loved and protected. My family and I moved to Rajasthan in 1999 and since it was my maternal grandfather’s dream to have doctors around, and my father was already a government doctor, my sister, cousins and I also grew up to became doctors.

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