In the aftermath of the Indo-Pak War of 1971, Rajasthan faced some unique issues as a border State. There was an influx of refugees, mostly poor Meghwalas and affluent Rajputs, from Pakistan. Barmer District Administration faced the problems of temporarily settling them close to water points but away from urban habitations, besides supplying rations to help them.
After the war was over, these Pakistani refugees started agitating that they should not be sent back to Pakistan. The situation was precipitated soon after the Shimla Agreement was signed in July 1972. The Bharatiya Jan Sangh, the main Opposition Party and its leader, Shri Atal Bihari Vajpayee (later India's Prime Minister) announced their march to India-occupied territories in Pakistan to oppose the return of refugees to Pakistan in terms of Shimla Agreement. This Agitational March was announced for the second and third weeks of July 1972.
At that time, I was on leave in Udaipur. My leave was cut short, and I was recalled to resume my duties as Collector of Barmer District. I was able to handle this agitation tactfully with the full support of Chief Minister Barkatullah Khan, and a most powerful Chief Secretary, Mr. S. L. Khurana, who was later appointed Union Home Secretary.
Editor's note: The following narrative is based on an excerpt from Shri Srivastava's book 'Challenge and Change in Administrative System' (Published in 1999)
The Agitational March
The Shimla Agreement of 1972 between India and Pakistan provided, among other things, that the territories occupied by the defence forces on both sides during the War should be returned to the respective countries. An agitation was launched in July-August, 1972 by a prominent opposition political party against this provision of the agreement. I was recalled from leave, and so I travelled hack in 1030F temperature from Udaipur to my district headquarters just three days before the opposition leader concerned and his followers arrived at Barmer.
In accordance with the announcement made by Shri Atal Bihari Vajpayee the leader of the opposition party, the agitation was initially planned at various important places all along 250 kms. of the international boundary of Barmer district. However, Gadra Road railway station located near the- international border and about 100 kms. from Barmer district headquarters became the focal point of this agitation. From here, the opposition leader was going to launch the agitation and set its tone and pace. Also, from here agitators were to enter the "occupied area" on their way to Gadra City, situated about 10 km. inside the Pakistan territory, then under control of our army. The agitators decided to camp at Gadra Road railway station. The agitation created an unprecedented situation for us.
It would be recalled that the largest chunk of Pakistan territory, about 8,000 sq. km. in area, which was occupied by the Indian Army in the Western Sector, lay opposite Barmer district. The "occupied area" included two tehsil headquarter townships of Chhachhro and Nagar-parker of Tharparkar district of Pakistan. After the war, early in 1972, the then Chief Minister of Rajasthan, Mr. Barkatullah Khan, had gone to Chhachhro and had unfurled the Indian national flag signifying that the area was not only under our occupation, but it was also to be administered by Civil Administration of the State. It was not clear, then, that the territory would be returned to Pakistan.
In the wake of the War, most of the Hindu population consisting of Sodha Rajputs, Jains comprising the business community, and Meghwalas (Scheduled Caste), numbering about 50,000, had entered Barmer district as refugees and were camping all over in the sandy terrain of the district. This large influx of refugees had created a variety of problems for the district administration. The refugees had either taken shelter with their relatives or were living on their own in the open with all their belongings because only about five to six hundred of them could be accommodated in the refugee-camps. The refugees had also joined hands with the opposition party workers under the erroneous impression that with the pressure of agitation, the area would be retained by India, which, in turn, would enable them to go back to their original home and hearth.
Initially, there were no instructions to the district administration from the State government as to how the agitation was to be dealt with. For a day or so, it appeared that the whole matter was the concern only of the district administration. On the other hand, the army authorities were, naturally, worried as the agitators were going to cross the international boundary line. They were quite apprehensive about the demeanour of the agitators once they crossed over to the occupied area, coupled with the threat that a large number of civilians might stage an indefinite 'sit-in' there.
The then Army Commander, Southern Command, Gen Bewoor, therefore, issued a notification which imposed prohibitory orders on the civilians of India against entering the "occupied territory." According to the procedure laid down under these prohibitory orders, anyone found going across the international boundary lines would be 'apprehended' by the army authorities for handing over to the civil authorities of the district. Thus, the civil administration was expected to deal with the agitators in close co-ordination with the army authorities. As the army authorities had already promulgated a notification prohibiting the violation of international boundary lines, it was not considered necessary by us to issue another set of orders under Sec. 144 Cr.P.C.
After a series of meetings, it was decided that the agitators should be allowed to go to the "occupied territory" so that they would be dealt with by us only after the army authorities had handed them over to the Sub-Divisional Magistrate of the area. The procedure thus agreed upon, everyone waited with bated breath for the outcome of the event.
The Melodrama of the March
On the first day, at about 9 a.m. the agitation's leader, Mr. Vajpayee, led a procession of more than 200 volunteers including some women volunteers who had come all the way from Maharashtra. The procession was, as usual, escorted by a posse of the police force. All the senior officers followed the agitators and watched them cross the international boundary line. The volunteers marched ahead with gusto and fanfare. On reaching Gadra City in "occupied area," they had to, perforce, camp in a Krishna temple which was the only pucca structure in that village. We had a rare glimpse of Television coverage of the great march by A.B.C. (Australia), B.B.C. and German TV teams for the first time in our experience in Barmer.
By mid-day, no action was taken by the army authorities, as they did not know how to apprehend women volunteers and also how to go about the whole business of tackling the agitators before handing them over to the civil authorities. After an exchange of some messages among several commanders, some orders trickled to the operational command in the field area. Finally, the army officers were able to bring back the volunteers only after sun-set in an army truck. The agitation leader was found seated in a jeep. The agitators were not allowed to come out of the vehicles for quite some time as the army officers had not worked out where to keep them in custody before handing them over to us. They also consulted us whether food was to be provided to the agitators to which, of course, the answer was `yes'. After further consultations among themselves, the army officers arranged for food for the agitators.
Around midnight, Gadra Road railway station-the focal point of the agitation - presented an eerie spectacle in the midst of long sandy stretches. With the army personnel running around and managing the show in their characteristic style, the event was dramatised and made momentous for all of us. Finally, a list of volunteers was handed over to me, which I passed on to the Sub-Divisional Magistrate of the area.
Facing It Squarely
When it came to a crunch, we faced the agitation squarely. According to the guidelines received from the State government, the agitators were to be released by the concerned Magistrate under Sec. 62 Cr.P.C. as they had committed no offence on the Indian territory. Briefly, the strategy was that the agitators should be let off so that they were forced to return home at their own expenses, or if they so desired, they could stay on and continue the agitation. As the agitators were expecting to be arrested and sent to various jails before being released, they were almost shocked by our action. Much to our relief, the agitation received an immediate set-back.
I introduced myself to Mr. A. B. Vajpayee, the opposition leader who remarked, "We want to be arrested by the police." I replied, "Sir, you and your followers have committed no offence in the Indian territory, and therefore, the Magistrate is bound to discharge all of you under Section 62, Cr. P. C. and release from custody immediately".
He was almost stunned as he slumped on the only cot placed on the railway platform at Gadra Road station and exclaimed, "Bhairon Singh Ji, Ab kya hoga (what will happen now)? Shri Bhairon Singh Shekhawat had been the Jan Sangh candidate for Barmer Parliamentary Constituency in the 1971 Lok Sabha elections, and later rose to be Chief Minister of Rajasthan State and Vice President of India. He expressed his great consternation to me that he and his followers were being released immediately after the army had formally handed them over to us. The batch of volunteers for which the party had paid rail-fare to Barmer and Gadra Road were now required to go back on their own or with financial assistance from the opposition party. Besides, their successive batches were discouraged from reaching Barmer as there was no hope of travelling at the government expense on return journey to their places, via jails.
Our action in releasing the agitators forced them to change their strategy. The group of volunteers who had come all the way on the first day were asked to stay on for the next few days to carry on the agitation. The leader himself stayed on to plan his next move. As the agitation was likely to fizzle out, the agitators got it circulated that a dharna (protest demonstration) would be staged at the railway station and on the rail tracks both at Barmer and Gadra Road in order to dislocate the movement of trains. This created a new set of problems for us.
After hurried consultations, it was decided that if found necessary, force should be used for the removal of volunteers from railway stations and rail-tracks. I also discussed this matter on telephone with the Chief Secretary, who immediately gave me a green signal for taking such strong action as might be warranted by the situation besides adding a word of encouragement for the proper handling of the agitation until then. The agitators probably got a scent of the proposed strong action and, therefore, did not finally stage the proposed dharna. The agitation, as expected, started petering out even before coming to an unsung finale. Fortunately, no law and order incident of the nature requiring use of force took place.
A few interesting facts and situations are worth mentioning: On the first day of agitation, the women volunteers did not enter the army vehicle on their own. This posed a big problem for the army officers. Fortunately for them, the volunteers were, after some time, tired of sitting in the temple in Gadra City and decided to get into the vehicles and co-operate with the army officers. This, however, delayed their handing over to us, which took place at about 11.30 p.m.
When we returned to district headquarters from Gadra Road past midnight, we found the refugees chanting bhajans and raising slogans in support of agitation in front of my residence, which continued throughout that night and on successive five-six nights.
When the volunteers were handed over to the Sub-divisional Magistrate at about 8 p.m., and later the Magistrate announced the fact that they were being released under 62 Cr.P.C., the women volunteers gheraoad (encircled) him and did not allow him to come back to our camp. Finally, the Magistrate got out of this situation by making a hurried plea of having to go for answering the call of nature.
On the third day, we decided to make an announcement of release on a mike fitted into a jeep. As the jeep approached the agitators, they came to know of our plan immediately. The volunteers rushed towards the jeep and a few got into it as the vehicle was sped away by the clever police driver.
On the fourth day, the announcement of release was made on mike from a distance of 100 yards or so, so as to avoid any clash between agitators and the police force. The agitators did not make any effort to break the police cordon.
As Mr. Vajpayee was not keeping well, he left Gadra Road on the fifth day of the agitation. However, his followers kept alive the campaign of going into the occupied area towards Gadra City for three weeks or so. Then, their agitation fizzled out as most of the volunteers perforce had to return home.
My experience as the District Officer of the border district of Barmer during the Indo-Pak conflict of 1971 was memorable and unique in many ways. The rich and intense experience of dealing with human, political and war situations gathered during that period stood me in good stead during my years in service and thereafter.
© I C Srivastava. Published October 2019.