Punjab’s NRIs face ostracisation, suspicion; unable to return home due to exorbitant ticket prices

05 April 2020
A passenger arriving at the Amritsar International Airport on 21 March. The NRIs of Punjab feel that the government is making them scapegoats to give the impression that it is cracking down on COVID-19, and even their own communities appear to be resentful of them.
NARINDER NANU / AFP / Getty Images
A passenger arriving at the Amritsar International Airport on 21 March. The NRIs of Punjab feel that the government is making them scapegoats to give the impression that it is cracking down on COVID-19, and even their own communities appear to be resentful of them.
NARINDER NANU / AFP / Getty Images

Administrative failure, mass hysteria and misinformation associated with the COVID-19 has reduced Punjab’s hitherto adored and eagerly awaited Non-Resident Indians to an ostracised community, regarded with suspicion by both their neighbours and the government. The NRIs have found themselves at the receiving end of condemnation on social media, where even the Punjab police and famous pop stars have shared songs framing them as irresponsible carriers of coronavirus. Amid this blame game, many are also stuck in the state, unable to return home. For those who reside in Canada, for instance, the cost of tickets for special flights has risen to four times the usual rate. Others are worried that even if they secure seats on a flight home, they will be stranded or quarantined during layovers.

In mid March, the Punjab government had admitted that more than ninety-thousand NRIs had returned to the state in March alone. The government later revised the figure to 55,000 persons, including both NRIs and international travellers. This has led to an air of uncertainty around the real figure of tourists who visited the affected countries and came back to Punjab. Having failed to take action early, the state machinery appears to have now gone into an overdrive. It has retrospectively quarantined even those NRIs who did not fit the criteria for being at risk—some, for instance, had been in India for several weeks, and have not shown any symptoms. To the NRIs, who have traditionally contributed towards the development of their home state, it appears that the government is making them scapegoats to give the impression that it is cracking down on COVID-19, and even their own communities appear to be resentful of them. Of the five who died from COVID-19 in Punjab, three had returned from abroad, but two did not have any foreign contact. The government’s ham-handed approach, some said, is discouraging those who have returned from abroad to come forward to get screened.

The exaggerated impression of NRIs as carriers of COVID-19 has been fuelled in large part by the Punjab police and its collaborations with famous Punjabi pop stars, and by the media. In late March, a musician named R Nait and Shubhdeep Singh Sidhu, a well-known Punjabi singer residing in Canada who goes by the stage name Sidhu Moose Wala, released a song to the latter’s 3.2 million subscribers on YouTube. “Gwacheya Gurbaksh”—Missing Gurbaksh—spoke of a fictional character who moved to Italy for a job. Years later, Gurbaksh returns to Punjab, but having contracted the novel coronavirus. The song goes: “21 saal pehlan gharo se kaddeya, berozgaari ne fer maadi kismaton dab leya ethe dekh bimari ne. O es darr toun chadd ke aa gaya mulk parayya, main Gurbaksh gwacha, Italy toh aaya haan”—Twenty years ago, I left home because I was unemployed, but now I am in the grip of this disease. The fear of it made me leave this foreign land, I am the missing Gurbaksh, I came from Italy.

Instead of turning himself over to the authorities or staying in quarantine, Gurbaksh goes missing. Owing to his carelessness, Gurbaksh’s family, especially his young grandson, become infected by the virus. Sidhu dedicated the song to the Punjab Police. Dinkar Gupta, the director general of the Punjab police, shared the song on his Twitter feed.

Jatinder Kaur Tur is a senior journalist with two decades of experience with various national English-language dailies, including the Indian Express, the Times of India, the Hindustan Times and Deccan Chronicle.

Keywords: COVID-19 coronavirus Punjab NRIs
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