“No. There is no chance you can enter India before Sunday night”
These are the words of a representative of the Consulate General of India in Bhutan. The Indian Embassy was nicer, but not more helpful than these guys.
“I can’t give you any assurance, but you can go to the border, present your documents and maybe they will let you through.”
These were the words of the Indian Embassy.
Everyone seemed clueless about the situation at the border. It was 10:30 in the night when we felt there was no more hope left, but that’s not how it was a couple of hours ago.
A taxi driver we met while crossing the India Bhutan border had made good friends with us. For those of you who don’t know, the India Bhutan border is a free border. Which means you can walk through without really being worried about someone shooting you for having crossed a line. You can get a permit to stay in Bhutan (takes like 2 hours) and then head on.
It’s a pretty measly affair. No bells and whistles. But due to elections in West Bengal, the Election Commission of India and the Bhutanese government decided to close the India Bhutan Roadway for 48 hours. Their argument being that they wanted to prevent fraudulent voters from crossing into the country and impacting the assembly elections.
15th April 2016, 1700 hrs IST, the gates to India were sealed. 1930 hrs IST, we got a call from our friendly taxi driver saying the border was sealed for the next two days. We didn’t really believe him. Deep, my friend, was travelling with me.
“We are Indians, they’ll let us through right?”, Deep asked him.
“SEALED! Do you understand sealed?”, he said in a staunch Bhutanese accent.
Our hearts sank in the first moment, blood boiled in the next.
“How can they stop Indians from getting into India?”, Deep asked me with a slightly scared but resolute tone.
I was reminded of the Fundamental Right to Movement and I said,
“How the f**k can they not let me into India? It’s my country, I have a passport. I will walk through that border at 15.30 tomorrow and they can shoot me if they want to, but I will choose to die for my rights than don’t confer to these inconsiderate regulations”
I called a few friends. Just to be sure that the Right to Movement was a right and if that can really be a defence. They were the kind of phone calls you make to boost your morale. Most said yes and a sturdy yes for that. In the meantime, our man at the Indian Embassy (in Thimpu, the capital of Bhutan. We were in Paro, another town, way more beautiful than anything you’ve ever seen) very politely declined any help, as you read above. They felt it wasn’t under their jurisdiction. It was starting to get confusing.
The consulate was equally clueless. This is when Shinjali called. A journalist friend I had earlier called to pull some strings and understand how this works.
“The fundamental right to freedom of movement might be reasonably restricted in the interest of the general public or for the protection of a scheduled tribe”, she said from the other end of the phone, a little less scared than I was now, but scared nevertheless.
I was confused. Can I be denied the right to enter my own country? Can they really do that? Isn’t that too undemocratic in a way? But they were right in sealing the border. Cases of fraudulent voting were plenty. This was the only way to prevent it. I wasn’t sure what I believed in, the right that a democracy gave me, or the process that gave me the democracy I was so adamant on thrashing.
My argument wasn’t irreasonable, their situation, not ad hoc. While this was happening, we had already composed a tweet addressed to the EAM, Sushma Swaraj and others but it was late into the night and we weren’t sure if anyone would respond. I stood across the bed side in that beautiful wood finished hotel room a friend had been kind enough to offer. Deep was on the bed, thinking what we should do next.
India wasn’t closed, only the border gate was. We could still take a flight from Paro to Kolkata. We could still be home very (very, very) comfortably. We were considering that option and we were considering it hard. We had our own reasons to.
Things weren’t working out, we were losing hope. The code some super intelligent engineer in the valley wrote for twitter was working after understanding if it was really relevant keeping our tweet in people’s feed anymore. There were retweets but they came in small waves, I was losing hope, Deep was still working on it. We kept asking people to push it up.
When nothing seemed to work out, I opened the website of DrukAir, the airline agency of Bhutan, filled the details, got the flight, and started filling the passenger detail fields. I looked at him, he was staring at me, and I said what we were both thinking, “But what about everyone else?”. There were at least other 20 Indian tourists we had met during immigration, all of them planned on leaving in this weekend they closed the gates on, no one knew about the border seal.
This also meant there could be many more. People frequently shuttle between India and Bhutan for work purposes. That left a lot (like literally a lot) of them there. It wasn’t a matter of safe passage anymore. It wasn’t a matter of money or for that matter anything selfish. We shared a moment of pure unbridled compassion for what we, a lot of other people, called home. It was decided, we were going to do what we do best to get a way out, talk, and talk as loud as we can.
In the previous run of tweets we had tweeted to Shashi Tharoor as well, simply because he seemed to be awake and we both love his speeches. And voila! He retweeted almost instantly, tagging the relevant people. We’re now back to 2230 hrs in the night where we started in the beginning of this story. I closed the DrukAir website tab very confidently now, killing the little doubt I had in myself.
Too much was happening. I had written an SOS post on Facebook that got over 80 shares. People were helping, and helping fervently. I got a lot of messages asking about my wellbeing and if I needed anything. Some from Bhutan who inquired if I needed a place to stay. But we were comfortable. We knew that all the support was heartwarming, but what we really needed was someone on the border, someone who could tell us exactly what was going on.
— Shashi Tharoor (@ShashiTharoor) April 15, 2016
We knew Tharoor’s tweet wouldn’t go waste but time was passing by. The responses on twitter were in part political jibes, in part funny comments, nothing that really helped. I was surprised how apolitical Tharoor kept it. Having every chance to take digs at the government, he didn’t.
All hope was now on the people this could reach to. We let it all be and took some time to take a breath. I was in the bathroom washing my tired eyes of when Deep screamed from outside,
“Shashakt Seema Bal of the Minitry of Home Affairs is asking us where we are and what our contact number is!”
— Shashi Tharoor (@ShashiTharoor) April 16, 2016
I ran outside! There finally was someone who could do something. Someone who guarded the border between India and Bhutan asked us what we were upto. We told them the mess we were in and what our travel plans were. There was some back and forth of information, after which we received the message we were so desperately waiting for, “We have taken the required permission. If you come now, you can cross now”
We screamed at the top of our voices at 1:30 in the morning. We probably woke some people up but we didn’t care, it was probably for their own good. The Commander in Chief at the border called us using the number we provided to the twitter account of SSB. He asked us to take a chill, quite literally, and assured us that all the Indians, free of a criminal record, shall not be stopped from entering the sovereign republic of India. His name was Munna Singh, the most resolute and trust gathering voice I have ever heard through a phone.
We posted our updated status and thanks on all the places where people had helped us. Deep sent a “thank you sir” to the @DGSSB account at the end of a gratitude filled appreciation and the response came,
“It’s Ma’am btw. I am Renuka Mishra, the IG of SSB. I happen to follow Shashi Tharoor, noticed your tweet. That’s when I switched to the SSB account and sent you a message”
We couldn’t speak. The patriarchy inside us somehow made us think it was a man. Our liberal minds weren’t capable enough for a gender neutral salutation. Our hearts sank a little but then rose with pride thinking, “So this is what woman empowerment really looks like”
Gr8 work by Munna Singh 2IC 53Bn and Coy Cdr Insp. Ranjit Baidya reinforces SSB motto ‘seva, suraksha, bandhutva’ https://t.co/tSTXUBJHHl
— Sashastra Seema Bal (@DGSSB) April 16, 2016
When we reached the border next day, we saw the pool of over 300 Indians who were being allowed to cross the border inside of a limited time frame. An officer from the SSB came to escort us through, made us sit down and gave us the best coffee we ever had in our entire lives.
We were asked to wait, meet the the SP from the Indian side and the SP from Bhutan as an acknowledgement of our safe passage into our homeland. I have never felt so happy having seen India. Bhutan never made me feel like a foreigner except for that one night.
In our coffee conversations, we realised how beautifully cooperative the two countries were with each other. Mr. Ranjit Badiya, the Indian SP specifically mentioned that it was the Bhutan SP who acted on the Call of IG SSB the previous night and let people out at his own risk.
“I can’t deny people their right to be in their own country”, he told us.
The compassion was unmatched. He was the happiest police officer I have seen in my entire life. We felt we were safe, not just now but as along as people like Mr. Badiya, Mr. Singh and Ms Mishra are standing there for us.
None of the 20 people who crossed the border every minute knew what happened to make them capable of crossing the line. And we realised, this is what happens every time something is accomplished. There are so many people who work under the wraps, without any recognition whatsoever to deliver the last mile of a mission that works in the interest of everyone. We never hear about them, they never want to be heard. Seeing people happy is what it’s all about for them. That is what it was about for us in that moment.
We choose to publish this story as a memoir to all the unsung heroes. Always know that there are people behind the curtains who work worth way more than you can see. We didn’t really do much in terms of actually getting people out, but we knew what it felt like.
Bhutan is the most beautiful country in the world, it’s people, an amazing lot of deal with and the security forces on both ends actually stand for the rights and welfare of the people they protect. Travel, they said, it makes you a better person. But no one prepared us for this. We came out as better human beings
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