Outsiders in Kutch's mini-Punjab: Sikh farmers battling for their land
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Bhajan Singh, 62, remembers the time curious villagers turned up to see a borewell his father Gopal Singh had dug up. The year was 1969 and it was the first time Sumrasar village, near Bhuj in
Kutch district, had had a borewell. Few had ever seen it work, as they depended entirely on rainwater for the barely one crop they harvested a year.
Originally from Pakistan, Gopal Singh had migrated to Amritsar during Partition. He moved to Kutch, then a barren, deserted area, 400 km from Ahmedabad and the last district of Gujarat on the Indo-Pak border, four years after then prime minister Lal Bahadur Shastri appealed to countrymen to settle there. Shastri issued the appeal during the India-Pakistan war of 1965, arguing that populating the border region would be strategically advantageous for India, deterring intrusion from the other side. On the PM's call, a large group of migrants poured in, and between 1965 and 1984, the Gujarat government allotted land officially to 550 people of Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan in the district. Of them, 390 were Sikhs. They settled across the district, not very far from the local villages, in the middle of their farms. Gopal Singh was part of the group that came from Punjab.
Nearly 45 years later, this part of Kutch, which continues to receive Sikh migrants, stands out from the rest of the district. On the strength of the legendary Sikh entrepreneurship, a green pasture rests there now, referred to as "mini Punjab".
A tremor went down this region then in 2010, when the Kutch District Collector sent them a notice that their plots were being frozen as they were outsiders and couldn't own farm land in the state, nor transfer it. Essentially, it meant they couldn't sell or purchase land any more, or get bank loans for agricultural processes, and that they could be evicted anytime.