In times of global recession, a small town in Punjab continues to harbour dreams of going abroad, finds Manpreet Singh
Eighteen-year-old Jupinder Singh clasps a toy aeroplane as he enters a Sikh shrine in Punjab. Bowing reverently at Gurdwara Sant Baba Nihal Singh Ji Shaheedan in Tallan village, near Jalandhar city, he offers the aeroplane, seeking God’s blessings for the fulfillment of his “foreign dreams.”
“I want to fly to Canada, which is my only ambition in life. I came to offer this aeroplane so that I would get a visa without any difficulty,” says a hopeful Jupinder.
Standing next to Jupinder is his cousin Jagbir Singh, also holding a sleek toy aeroplane. “Most of my relatives are settled in America. I came to ask for God’s help to join them.”
Craze to go abroad is finding a new expression in the beginning of a bizarre ritual in Punjab. At a time when the world is going through a recession, hundreds of aspirants from all over Punjab throng the Tallan village’s gurdwara to offer aeroplane replicas, hoping their prayers will get them wings to fly to foreign shores — particularly to North America or Europe. America, UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand top their list of preference, followed by Germany, France, Italy and Greece.
Migrating to the West, by hook or crook, is not a new phenomenon in Punjab. A classic case of Punjabis’ foreign venture — that has assumed proportions of a folklore — is when two persons from Punjab illegally smuggled themselves by holding the landing gear of a British Airways plane at Delhi and reached Heathrow. One died and the survivor got a British citizenship as a gift of love, apparently for his passion for that country.
Every year thousands of young Punjabi villagers risk their property and life to reach the western shores. Even the tragic Malta boat incident in which 170 illegal migrants from Doaba belt in Punjab died does not deter them. These youth were drowned in Malta-Sicily channel in 1996 after their boat collided with a ship during a mid-sea transfer. Human traffickers are making fortunes on foreign craze.
Former Union minister Balwant Singh Ramoowalia, leading the crusade against this illegal multi-million dollars industry controlled by dubious travel agents, says nearly 1800 young Punjabis have died illegally chasing foreign dreams in last two decades.
“It’s a matter of shame that over 2500 girls from Punjab are forced to enter prostitution abroad while about 50,000 young men are languishing in jails and gurdwaras world over; or are stranded in jungles and deserts of Africa,” he grieves. “Nothing is being done by the state and central governments to stop this tragedy.”
As a result, Punjab, one of the prosperous states in the country, has earned notoriety for being the source of exporting largest number of illegal migrants from India to the world. Thousands of Punjabi youth are facing illegal migration charges world over, say Interpol and United Nations reports.
Back home, flashes of new wealth brought in foreign currency are stoking further Punjabis’ desire to seek greener pastures abroad. As you drive amidst the lush green farmlands of Doaba belt in Jalandhar, Hoshiarpur and Nawan Shahar — famous for pioneering the Green Revolution and its large number of NRIs — the imposing buildings, with aeroplane-shaped water tanks perched atop, challenge villagers to seek fortunes abroad.
These structures stand to symbolise the sense of achievement and Punjabis ‘ultimate dream’ to go abroad.
Obsession with foreign lands has become deep rooted in the Punjabi psyche. What logic would anyone find when a university teacher migrates illegally to take up a truck driver’s job in Canada. Or when you see an army officer’s son, studying MBA, lamenting as to why he was not born in America.
Passion for foreign lands is widespread and intriguing. “I once visited a village in which every resident had a passport. And I could not find a single person who had not gone to an embassy for visa,” narrates sociology professor Manjit Singh of Panjab University in Chandigarh.
This dream is strongly reflected in the main sanctum of Tallan’s gurdwara where you see a large number of aeroplane replicas of different sizes and colours, with logos such as ‘World Airlines’, ‘Wing’, ‘High Port’, ‘Atlas’, arranged methodically amidst wooden and metal horse figures.
Although Sikhism strictly prohibits indulging in any kind of superstitions, devotees driven by their strong desire continue to throng this shrine carrying aeroplane toy offerings.
“What can we do?” Gurdwara’s manager Balbir Singh expresses his helplessness. “We ask people not to indulge in this practice, but they won’t listen. We have to take care of their feelings too. Their belief is very strong.”
The villagers say earlier people used to offer horse figures for good health. As the desire to fly to foreign lands took hold of people’s fancy they started offering toy aeroplanes.
Explains professor Manjit Singh. “Offering aeroplanes in this context is a daring social expression of one’s suppressed desires.”
An employee at the gurdwara insists devotees’ belief works wonders: “Many people have gone abroad after offering miniature aeroplanes. Once their desire is fulfilled they tell others and the crowds follow.”
Numerous shops have sprung up in the shrine’s vicinity, selling toy aeroplanes. Sonu, a young shopkeeper calls the practice “a case of sheep mentality”, but is happy making some profit.
Paramjit Singh, another shopkeeper, says that people from all over Punjab and NRIs from world over come in big numbers here every Sunday. “I sell 10 to 15 toy aeroplanes a week. A toy plane costs between Rs 150 and Rs 600,” he adds.
Gurdwara authorities say the offered toys are given to the employees’ children or distributed among village boys.
Manager Balbir Singh says the trend caught up after countries like New Zealand and Australia started giving study visa liberally. As a result, the number of younger devotees coming with aeroplanes as offering has multiplied.
Sandeep Kaur, 20, rushes to offer an aeroplane. “I am offering this on behalf of my sister so that she can go to America.”
Migrating for decades, Punjabis have built a strong global network of relatives. The new generation is impatient to find a foothold in foreign lands.
Most won’t stop at anything. Even education is dumped in the race to fly away.
An eighth class student, Sukhpreet, can’t wait to reach England. “My uncles and aunts are there. With God’s help, I will fly soon. Once there I’ll find a driver’s job, or any job that comes my way,” he reveals. The daily news of millions being laid off their jobs in the wake of global recession does not discourage him.
Sukhpreet, like thousands others, is single-minded in his mission abroad. To make it a success he has already offered the aeroplane — adding wings to his prayers.
Deccan Herald, March 1, 2009,