New Delhi: Former BJP MP Balbir Punj kicked up a storm after he called migrant workers, undertaking the journey back home on foot, “irresponsible” on social media Friday.
Thousands of migrant and daily wage workers have been trying to return to their villages on foot after the Modi government announced an unprecedented nationwide lockdown for 21 days Tuesday. All public transport, including train services, have been suspended for this period.
In a series of tweets, Punj suggested that many were heading back to “utilise their forced ‘chutti’ to catch up with their families or errands back home”, even though multiple reports suggest that with no money or food they had little choice but to leave for home.
Why migrants leaving Delhi ? For want of money or food ? NO. Just irresponsible. There is no money/ jobs waiting for them back home. It’s to utilise their forced ‘chutti’ to catch up with their families or errands back home. Gravity of situation hasn’t dawned on them.@Si_lv_er
— Balbir Punj (@balbirpunj) March 27, 2020
In another tweet, he said, “What’s the mindset that’s motivating thousands to flee Delhi at great risk to themselves & others? Same which tells them to drive without helmets, seat belts , on the wrong side or after drinking. Philosophy: Take shortcuts, ignore risks. Plain irresponsible behaviour”.
When asked to comment on his tweets, the former BJP MP and journalist said that everyone was entitled to their views and that he was not apologetic about his tweets.
“They are not only putting themselves at risk but others too. Walking on foot for so long won’t take them anywhere. So many people being on the road at the same time only increases the risk of coronavirus. They need to understand that,” Punj told ThePrint.
Punj’s tweets criticised widely
Many condemned Punj’s comments, calling them anti-poor.
Tarun Vijay, chairman of Uttarakhand war memorial and former editor of RSS weekly Panchajanya also criticised Punj. “No no no. In times of pain and suffering they feel for their near and dear ones”, he said. Vijay added that everyone wants to rush back to their families in times of fear.
No no no. In times of pain and suffering they feel for their near and dear ones. None went to them to explain and provide shelter, food. The first name in times of fear and Dukh comes on our lips is name of mother,sister,kids.This pull makes them come on roads to rush back Home.
— Tarun Vijay தருண் விஜய் भारत के वीर सैनिकों की जय (@Tarunvijay) March 28, 2020
Many Congress leaders also criticised Punj’s remarks. Former MP Kirti Azad lashed out at Punj and said that unlike the latter, the migrants did not have “easy access” to luxuries.
Shame on u. r they walking 1000 kms w/o water food for chutti? Why, just because u r comfortable at home and have easy access to luxuries & basic needs. Its the same for them. I hope u paying ur migrant domestic help & not abandoned them?#GOI must help @PMOIndia #COVIDIOTS
— Kirti Azad (@KirtiAzaad) March 28, 2020
Former Rajya Sabha MP Shahid Siddiqui called out Punj’s “insensitivity and arrogance”.
I know Balbir but never thought he is so dumb, insensitive and heartless. I think it’s arrogance of power which makes a person so insensitive & dumb. https://t.co/vIa0wom3Zs
— shahid siddiqui (@shahid_siddiqui) March 28, 2020
There were many others who were also critical of what they termed as the double standards of the government in rescuing the NRIs through special flights and not doing anything for the poor.
Journalist Ashutosh tweeted that while the government sent special flights to rescue Indians trapped abroad, they are being highly irresponsible towards the poor in the country. “This reveals their ideology,” he added.
बलबीर पुंज बीजेपी/संघ के सदस्य हैं।सरकार विदेशों में फँसे भारतीयों को लाने के लिये विशेष विमान भेजती है। देश के ग़रीबों को ये ग़ैरज़िम्मेदार बताते हैं। बीजेपी सरकारें इन ग़रीबों के लिये विशेष विमान क्यों नहीं भेजती! ये विचारधारा की मानसिकता है। @balbirpunj @ajitanjum @INCIndia https://t.co/OKQakMCpSm
— ashutosh (@ashutosh83B) March 28, 2020
While Congress General Secretary Priyanka Gandhi didn’t react to the comment directly, she posted pictures of the relief work being done by the party workers to assist the migrant labourers.
अनिश्चितता, भय, भूख और पीड़ा के इस माहौल में हजारों हिंदुस्तानियों के कदम अपने गाँवों की ओर निकल पड़े हैं। मुझे गर्व है उप्र कांग्रेस के @VirendraGudduIN टुक्कीमल खटिक, मिथुन त्यागी, मुकेश धनगर @SChaudharyINC और उन सभी साथियों पर जो संकट की इस घड़ी में लोगों की मदद कर रहे हैं। pic.twitter.com/zxKLbGd4E0
— Priyanka Gandhi Vadra (@priyankagandhi) March 28, 2020
However, there were many who agreed with Punj as his tweet received more than 2,000 likes.
Responding to the criticism, Punj tweeted, “I may be accused of being anti poor. Fact is migrant labour hs behaved irresponsibly.PM asked all to stay put where ever they were.With nothing to do in Delhi they thought of catching up with their families or errands back home .They didn’t realise gravity of situation. Sad.”
No stranger to controversy
This is not the first time Punj has found himself in the middle of a controversy. In 2012, his comments favouring then-chief minister of Gujarat Narendra Modi created a stir and led to BJP ally Janata Dal (United) attacking the party over his comments.
Punj had said that Modi was a “cent per cent prime ministerial material” and had even indicated that the latter was not communal as had been perceived. Sharad Yadav, who was the JD(U) chief then, had criticised the BJP for Punj’s remarks.
Punj was elected to the Rajya Sabha in 2000 and was re-elected in 2006. He also served as the BJP’s Gujarat in-charge in 2012 and is considered to be close to the RSS.
In 2013, he was promoted as one of the national vice-presidents of the BJP but was dropped in 2014 when Amit Shah formed his own team as the party president.
Born in Lalowal, Gurdaspur in Punjab, Punj started his career in journalism with the publication Motherland in 1971 and worked for The Financial Express from 1974 to 1996.
Punj has also served as the chairman of the National Commission for Youth from 2002-2004 and was a member of the Committee on External Affairs in August 2012.