Which Indian or Pakistani premier has not desperately wanted to be the one to clinch peace between the two countries? Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has reportedly been keen, for years now, to go on a state visit to Pakistan.
Before the political climate could be conducive to Manmohan’s visit to Islamabad, 26/11 took place. Pakistan’s refusal to give Dr Singh even breathing space on the 26/11 investigations, followed by the LoC tensions in January and August this year, means that in his 10 years of prime ministership, Manmohan Singh will never have visited the country of his birth.
It is unlikely that Dr Singh is going to get any concessions on the 26/11 investigations or LoC tensions from Islamabad or Rawalpindi that would make it possible for him to persuade the opposition, public opinion or the belligerent media that it’s time for a state visit to talk peace.
However, I think Dr Singh must still visit Pakistan. It needn’t be a state visit. It could be a private visit to the Gurdwara Janam Asthan at Nankana Sahib, the holiest shrine of Sikhism, just as President Asif Ali Zardari visited the dargah of Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti in April 2012.
Dr Singh’s efforts at making peace with Pakistan resulted in a new bilateral visa agreement, whose implementation by India has been stalled by forces beyond his control. The official prayers of the Sikhs include, believe it or not, a plea for visa relaxation. In their daily Ardas, millions of Sikhs across the world ask for unhindered access to their gurdwaras. The Ardas says (rough translation), “Almighty Lord! Our helper and protector ever, restore to us the right and privilege of unhindered and free service and access to Nankana Sahib and other centres of Sikhism, from which we have been separated.”
It would only be appropriate for India’s first Sikh prime minister, who worked to ease the visa regime, to go and read the Ardas in Nankana Sahib,
From Nanakana Sahib near Lahore, Dr Singh could go to Panja Sahib near Rawalpindi. This shrine has a rock believed to have an imprint of Guru Nanak’s hand. Apart from India-Pakistan peace, Dr Singh needs to pray hard to minimise the embarrassment that awaits his party in the April-May 2014 general elections in India.
Another gurudwara Dr Singh must visit is Gurudwara Dera Baba Nanak at Kartarpur in Sialkot. This gurudwara is just three kilometres from the Indian border at Jammu. Dr Singh could persuade Pakistan to create a visa-free zone for Sikh pilgrims to visit Kartarpur Sahib when they like. It was here that Guru Nanak died and because his Hindu and Muslim followers fought over how he was to be cremated, his body turned into flowers that the two sets divided. He could pray at the resulting samadhi and grave alike for a similar resolution to the India-Pakistan conflict. Jammu-Sialkot is also an important border crossing that should receive some of the increasing trade volumes between the two countries.
Pakistan took a major step in giving Pakistani Sikhs autonomy to run their gurdwaras with the formation of the Pakistan Sikh Gurudwara Prabhandak Committee. Dr Singh could make a generous donation to the committee, and over a casual non-state lunch with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, he could persuade him to allow access to more than just 20 gurdwaras to Indian Sikhs. There are 175 gurdwaras in Pakistan. He could also visit the village of his birth, Gah in district Chakwal, and meet his old schoolmates.
Cynics will ask what this will achieve. Can’t Dr Singh make these personal visits when he is no longer prime minister? What such a visit will achieve is to send out a message to the forces of hate on both sides that unfortunately, we have no choice but to make peace, and that we cannot forget this compulsion even in the worst of times. No matter how much cross-border violence we see and how much hate we generate over territorial disputes, Nankana Sahib will remain in Pakistan and Ajmer Sharif in India.
Such a visit this winter will leave his successor with the thread to carry forward India’s policy of rapprochement with Pakistan, despite immense challenges.
Published in The Express Tribune, August 9th, 2013.