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Our twinned histories

Experiences in the other Punjab, foreign but familiar

The Sikhs are the only people in the world denied free access to their “Mecca”, Guru Nanak’s shrines around Lahore. ( Source: Reuters ) The Sikhs are the only people in the world denied free access to their “Mecca”, Guru Nanak’s shrines around Lahore. ( Source: Reuters )

I was born in Aldinpur village, Amritsar, 10 miles from the border with Pakistan. Lahore and Amritsar are the heart of the old Punjab. Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s original village, Jati Umra, is five miles from mine. The two Punjabs are embedded in two countries but it cannot be forgotten that in history and culture, they are one people: same language, same food, same dress, same ceremonies and the same jokes.

Syed Babar Ali is the founder and chancellor of the Lahore University of Management Sciences, justly famous in Pakistan. Iqrar Ahmad Khan, an acclaimed agricultural scientist, is the vice chancellor of Faisalabad Agriculture University. Both had been pressing me for long to visit and speak to their students. In the last week of March, my wife and I decided to go.

We crossed the new Attari border. The process there is tedious and slow, and not conducive to expanding visitor numbers or trade. The trade trucks choke up the main road and there is utter confusion. There is an obvious need to park the trucks in a separate designated area, away from the road to Lahore. The Pakistani processing on the other side is easier and faster.

We stayed at the Lahore Gymkhana. We did not have any security guards and I have never felt the need for any, here or there. In our country, security guards have become a means to elevate a politician’s status. They cannot protect him, hemmed in as they are by the crowds pressing in.

In the afternoon, I went to LUMS and spoke to a big gathering of students from many faculties, and their staff. The vice chancellor and Syed Babar Ali — incidentally a school friend of our former chief minister, Harcharan Singh Brar — were present. They were most curious about our election system, electronic voting and the whole process of democracy going on in India. I noted that boys and girls were present in equal numbers, and they questioned me intensively.

They want to know more about India. I asked to be taken to the canteen and observed boys and girls sitting in happy groups. I was taken around the university; classes had ended and they were all gathered in an open courtyard. Boys and girls were talking to each other, as they might in Delhi University, with easy camaraderie. The images of Pakistan people promote here are not correct. They have their loonies, as we have ours. Like us, the large mass of people have good sense.

The next day I went to see Mian Shahbaz Sharif, the chief minister, who had invited me. He was fascinated with our talk on development and my explanation of the Punjab system of minimum support prices, full procurement of wheat and paddy and prompt payments in 1,500 regulated mandi board market yards. I laughingly said to him that our wheat would be procured after April 13 and the entire cabinet, with the chief minister, would travel to market yards to ensure farmer satisfaction. In my Punjab, I said, democracy gets rid of chief ministers who fail in this prime duty.

The officers sitting around and listening were shocked at my remarks. The CM took them well. Pakistan has no such system. I saw, later, driving around Sahiwal and Faisalabad districts, that out of 20 million tonnes of wheat coming in, they were only going to buy about 3 million, that too from big influential farmers. I saw no godowns. Only in one place did I see a small stack under tarpaulins — on the ground, not even on plinths.

The CM had recently been to our Punjab, but his time was spent in great political hospitality. No one explained to him how we do things. He was fascinated and continued the conversation. When I left, he urged me to keep in touch. I suppose he does not ever get my kind of irreverent views. After I came back to Delhi, friends rang me to say that the CM had taken note of what I said and directed his cabinet to move out to the districts to ensure service to small farmers, as I had urged.

The next day, we travelled to Pakpattan beyond Fazilka on the Sutlej. We wanted to pay homage at the Baba Farid dargah. It is in the middle of a small town and the crowds in the bazaar were surprised to see us. Baba Farid is in the Sikh Granth Sahib, and our favourite listening. He lived 200 years before Guru Nanak, who used to come to Pakpattan. I was taken to a village outside town, still called Nanak Tibba, where he used to stay. A small hospice has been cleaned up and is looked after by the archaeological department. In the middle, it had flowers and candles on a small platform in Guru Nanak’s memory.

At night, in the deputy commissioner’s house, we were treated to a great performance by a young Muslim farmer who had been to Delhi and sung before our prime minister. He sang all the great Punjabi poets, from Farid and Bulleh Shah to our Shiv Batalvi. In the morning, I went to visit another pir’s dargah. They were having a big mela. I got a clear profile of the tradition-bound, pir-oriented, uneducated poor of the countryside. The pirs have a grip over the people. I was fascinated by what I saw; they were equally fascinated by a Sikh in their midst. Most generations after 1947 have not seen a Sikh. Those who are 60 today were born after 1947.

We travelled by road on a fine morning towards Faisalabad (Lyallpur). The wheat was in full bloom. As I passed through Sahiwal, Okara, Samundari into Lyallpur, I saw miles and miles of the most fertile heartland of Pakistan. The loss of this was the price that the Sikhs, who had developed them after British canals were brought in from 1890 into the 1920s, paid for Independence. I have said in Parliament that the truth is that the Partition was not of India, but of the Punjab and Bengal. The Partition of the Punjab was brutal and total.
The roads were excellent. We passed a sugar mill, all privately owned by big people. On a past visit, I saw that the sugar mill near Nankana Sahib was owned by the local deputy commissioner! Naturally, it crushed his cane first of all. As in Uttar Pradesh, they do not seem to be able to pay the farmers for long periods. Who can protest?

The Lyallpur Agriculture University had laid out a lavish welcome. I was surprised to learn that the university had 16,000 students, as compared to 3,000-plus in Ludhiana. In Lyallpur, the VC had expanded the university into all subjects apart from agriculture. What hit me was the fact that 8,000 of them were girls, doing PhDs in the sciences. My wife had to address 3,000 girls in a big hall as they were celebrating a “jashan”. They cheered her, loudly. I walked around their craft exhibition. The girls came freely up to us to have their pictures taken with me. Some were wearing “naqabs” but that, to me, was like many of our girls of whichever faith following their families’ religious leanings. They were like other spirited children, bubbling with curiosity.

The next day, I had to give the main address in their week of university celebrations. Three thousand people were packed into the hall. The press was there in full strength. The city corporations, commissioners, MLAs, MPs, deputy commissioner and everyone from the town had come. They were curious about what I would say. It must be remembered that Pakistan is left with only about five to seven thousand Sikhs after Partition. Sikhs are allowed to go in small numbers on a few religious occasions. People see them from a distance. Occasionally, a Sikh will go across to visit his pre-Partition village. They have never heard a Sikh speak at a large gathering.

The compere introducing me said I might speak in Punjabi; I turned this around by saying that I know little English, and so have to! There was laughter, as they saw me as one of their own. I greeted them with As-Salaam-Alaikum, they were happy. Then, I gave them a loud Sat Sri Akaal, and namaste. They welcomed these. I said to them, I want you to know what I come from. It is this: “Awwal Allah Noor Upaya, Kudrat Ke Sab Bande. Ek Noor Te Sab Jag Upjaya, Kaun Bhale Te Kaun Mande.” This is our philosophy. I reminded them that they say five namazes a day, we too do a final Ardas in the morning and evening. Our last request to the almighty is, “Nanak naam chardi kala, tere bhaane sarbat da bhala”.

I hammered the Sikh message in: “We all come from the same almighty, call him Allah or what you please, but we Sikhs always pray for the welfare of all, not our own only.” I was giving a serious message. It was welcomed with respect. Watching them and conveying to them our viewpoint, I felt sorry that Manmohan Singh, despite repeated invitations, had not found the time to visit his own ancestral village. Whether he was hesitant or the party prevented him, it does not matter any longer. I wish he had at least insisted on a visit to Nankana Sahib. Even a sentimental visit would have done immense good to Indo-Pak relations. PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee did better and I know for a fact how well they remember his speech at the governor’s dinner in Lahore.

Then I turned and pointed to the girls. I said I was happily surprised to see 8,000 of them in the university, doing PhDs in every science, interacting as in any university in India. I explained about my three girls who have taken the highest education in the world and followed their chosen professions. I said to them in the strongest Punjabi that “it is these girls who will lift Pakistan to the sky. What is more,” I lifted my finger and said, “they will drag you up there too.” The girls cheered loudly; men of every persuasion took my message of women’s equality and education with rapt attention.

When we returned to Lahore, we were invited to breakfast by the governor and his wife. The governor had spent decades in the UK building up a business, and now was back to contribute to the building of Pakistan. They were both full of enthusiasm for the progress of the country. The governor was keen on better relations between the two countries. The Gymkhana has an 18-hole golf course. Every time I sat on the verandah, golfing groups, all retired high civil and military, distinguished citizens, came up to me and wanted to talk of the need for more people-to-people contact and friendship as the only way to progress. Since I wear my passport on my head, it was easy for people to spot me and walk across to share thoughts.

I was a small boy at Partition and I saw something of the horror around me. A cataclysmic event, 1947 will live with us on both sides of the border. It is also true that after the great killings, Punjabis on both sides have moved on. They believe in “mitti pao”, bury the past. We believe in moving into the future. Life is tomorrow, not yesterday. We know what Partition means to others. For them it is an academic thought, no more.

The Sikhs are the only people in the world denied free access to their “Mecca”, Guru Nanak’s shrines around Lahore. Tiny numbers of them are allowed by the home ministries of India and Pakistan to visit the shrines on a few occasions only. It is demeaning to be begging for permission. Even in Jerusalem, Jews, Christians and Muslims all go to their shrines in the city. I have spoken of this perpetual denial of their shrines to the Sikhs in Parliament and on Pakistani TV channels. I believe both countries need to do more to give at least this comfort to the Sikhs. We want peace, trade, people’s exchange and progress.

If this is done, the growth rate on both sides of the border will be better than China’s. Sadly, in the making of Indo-Pak policy, we seem to have little say. Others work out their passions, while we watch and wait. We are still paying the price of Partition.

The writer is a Congress MP from Punjab in the Rajya Sabha and
former Union minister

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