Once a graveyard of Pak tanks, Khemkaran now battles drugs and unemployment
It's ironic in a way - the site for one of India's greatest military victories over Pakistan, a graveyard of Pakistan's Patton tanks, has now fallen victim to drugs from across the border.
Khemkaran is located right on the international border in Tarn Taran district of Punjab, across from the Kasur district of Pakistan.
It was the site for the turning point of the 1965 Indo-Pak war. Pakistani troops had captured the town, but the retaliation from the Indian side resulted in the Battle of Asal Uttar, in which Pakistan lost over 100 tanks.
Today, according to locals, the town and its adjoining villages lie ignored by the government of Punjab. This constituency reflects the mood of the electorate across the Majha region of the state.
The key issues
The main issues ahead of the 4 February polls are pretty much what one finds at the top of the to-do list of every party that's opposing to the ruling Shiromani Akali Dal-Bharatiya Janata Party alliance.
Be it the drug menace, the alleged high-handedness of the Jathedars who owe allegiance to the Akalis, lodging of false police cases, unemployment, farmer issues or a lack of development, all these issues find resonance among the electorate.
In the last two elections, Khemkaran has elected an Akali heavyweight, Virsa Singh Valtoha. However, this time, the constituency is looking for a change, most likely in the form of Congress nominee Sukhpal Singh Bhullar, or Aam Aadmi Party (AAP)'s ex-servicemen cell convenor Bikramjit Singh Pahuwadia.
The drug menace
One only needs to mention the term 'nasha' to elicit a strong response from the electorate - in Khemkaran town as well as the villages around it.
People point out how one can come across groups of youth who are unemployed, under the grip of synthetic drugs, and dying a slow death. The town, in fact, had made headlines almost a year and a half ago when there were four deaths within one month because of drugs. People say there are so many families in the villages around who have lost their only sons to the menace.
But the Akali leadership is in complete denial. When SAD zonal incharge Gagandeep Singh was asked the question, he asked all the boys around the SAD office to raise their hands if they took drugs and said: "This is an issue created by the Opposition to defame SAD-BJP, and to neutralise the positive impact of development carried out in the last 10 years on the voters' minds. There are no drugs here."
But this reporter came across a youth who had come to a chemist shop barely 200 metres away, trying to get rid of his addiction to opium. "I decided to quit opium last week. I am taking injections to stabilise myself and deal with the terrible withdrawal symptoms. Opium has always been a royal nasha, and you will not hear of anyone dying of it. But I can well imagine what addicts of synthetic drugs have to go through," he said.
Locals also point out that there is no drug rehabilitation centre in the vicinity, and one has to go to Tarn Taran if one wants medical redressal of the problem. They say that drugs are easily available and point to the recent arrest of a man caught for selling synthetic drugs right at the local bus stand from a mobile recharge shop that he ran.
"Do you think the local police or the political leadership is unaware of such selling points?" said Anoop Singh, the local secretary of the Communist Party of India, which is supporting the joint Left candidate, Master Daljit Singh of the Revolutionary Marxist Party.
Sanjeev Dhawan, the munshi at the local truck union, and is campaigning for the Congress, said: "The adjoining villages of Mehndipur, Mastgarh, Kalsa; in fact, the entire border belt is facing this problem. This time around, the youth are so angry that even those who supported the Akalis in the past are campaigning for a change."
One such youth is Harpreet Kapoor, who had come to the Congress office looking for party flags, which he wanted to distribute to his friends, to counter a roadshow by Valtoha's son on Sunday. He said the Akalis had 'ruined' the youth.
Pahuwadia is also campaigning vigorously on the issue of drugs. A social worker who has been working on education and healthcare, Pahuwadia enjoys a lot of goodwill, but his being pitted against heavyweights makes the poll journey tough for him.
People like Gurdev Singh underline the misery of the masses here. "There are no factories around that can offer some employment and engagement to the youth. We do not buy the argument that because of being very close to the border, no large scale industry can come up here. They can have the industry at commutable distance from here. If you go only by the book, there should not be eight petrol pumps within eight kilometres here," he said.
Claims of development
The Akalis are playing up their claims on development. They also claim that Valtoha is 'highly respected' among the electorate, and this would help him sail through for the third time.
"Valtoha Sahib is the one who has won over the Dalits, particularly the converts to Christianity, the Rai Sikhs and the Mazhabi (Dalit) Sikhs here, and got them elected on five municipal seats. There has been development in the form of sewer lines being laid, street lights being installed etc. The problem of employment will be solved through the skill centres that we will establish," said Gagandeep, the Akalis' zonal in-charge for Khemkaran.
But there are many who dispute these claims, and point out that the constituency remains a picture of neglect.
People also point out that the Akalis have put police stations under the jurisdiction of local Jathedars, and this has led to the gross misuse of the police against the people. They allege that registration of false cases is a very common phenomenon.
"While this practice of registration of false cases by the police has been going on for decades here, this time, it has crossed all limits. Most of the times, it is the victim who is eventually made an accused," said a local resident.
It is this disenchantment that has made things very difficult for Valtoha this time. A large section of the population is also annoyed with demonetisation and points out that till today, they can't withdraw money as per the announcements made by the Central government.
Edited by Shreyas Sharma