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Divided attentions


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BY donating a million dollars to the shrine of Gharib Nawaz Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti at Ajmer, President Asif Ali Zardari has queered the pitch for us poorer pilgrims. How can anyone compete with such largesse?

The pledge he fulfilled had been made by Benazir Bhutto during one of her visits when in exile. The funds were finally delivered by Pakistan’s high commissioner Salman Bashir on Aug 17, on behalf of President Zardari and the people of Pakistan. Even as the money was being handed over, some Indian cynics — over-familiar with the state of Pakistan’s economy — wondered whether it was not (as M.K. Gandhi said in a different context) “a post-dated cheque drawn on a failing bank”.

They need not have worried. A million dollars will not dent Pakistan’s foreign currency reserves of $15bn. It will do much, however, to bolster the economy of that tiny Ajmeri enclave which many Indians regard as Little Pakistan. Ajmer is not alone. On the road from Srinagar to Kargil and Leh, some householder had scrawled ‘Welcome to Pakistan’, but it was such a half-hearted assertion of independence that the Indian forces have not bothered to erase it.

To Indians, the shrine of Moinuddin Chishti at Ajmer is as important as the shrine of Data Ganj Buksh at Lahore is to Pakistanis. It is said that the Mughal emperor Akbar walked barefoot many times from Agra to Ajmer to pay his respects. He did so in more hygienic times. To repeat that devotion today is a test of one’s faith. The narrow, grimy defile that leads from the lofty gate built by the Nizam of Hyderabad to the Buland Darwaza of the shrine itself is congested with clamorous shopkeepers and importuning beggars.

Inside the shrine are embedded two imperial-size cauldrons, each donated by Akbar and his son Jehangir so that over 1,000 pilgrims could be fed simultaneously. Today, these iron hemispheres swallow and digest everything thrown into their perpetually open mouths — coins and notes, trinkets, gold, jewellery, bags of flour, rice or sugar. No one remembers anyone slipping in a million-dollar cheque.

The more popular a shrine, the more arrogant its attendants, and the mazar of Gharib Nawaz is no exception. His shrine is populated with them. They patrol the complex, strutting like spiritual sentinels. To stand with one’s head uncovered is to attract their censure; not to stand with one’s hands folded is to invite a loud reprimand. They determine what is the right ritual, where it is to be performed, and by whom.

Groups of devotees are made to huddle beneath a large tinsel-trimmed sheet before they can circumambulate the quadrangular shrine. The grave itself is expectedly modest. In the end, even divines need no more than six feet of earth. A silver-plated portal allows pilgrims a glimpse of the inner sanctum. The crush there is a pressing reminder that you are in Little Pakistan. Faith takes first place, Discipline a poor second, and Unity is untraceable in the disorderly mêlée.

Outside, you have a choice of meditating silently or listening to a trio of ageing qawwals, or of answering questions about Pakistan. One of the attendants will introduce himself as someone who still has relations across the border, and then probe you about what the situation in Pakistan is really like. Some years ago, they would have expected you to commiserate with them on their plight as Muslims stranded in India. Now, they pity you for being marooned in Pakistan.

Over the past 65 years, the attitude of the Indian Muslim towards Pakistan has shifted perceptibly down-scale, from being a dream immediately after 1947, to disappointment after 1965, then disillusionment after 1971, and now derision after the Mumbai attack of 26/11. To them Pakistan is now no better than simply a septic tank, infested by vermin-like terrorists.

The sanctity of Ajmer is matched by its neighbour Pushkar, seven miles away, where there is a temple dedicated uniquely to Brahma. Taken together, they symbolise the religious pluralism of India. At Gharib Nawaz, Hindus (and there are always a number in the crowd every day) merge indistinguishably amongst Muslims, but interestingly that communalism works only one-way. Devout Muslims at Pushkar are as rare as the crocodiles that once slithered through the murky waters of the sacred lake. Hindu devotees immerse themselves in it seeking absolution, the weight of their sins sinking slowly into the sediment and mixing with the ashes of Gandhi, Nehru and Mrs Indira Gandhi.

It was undoubtedly to remind his Pakistani hosts of India’s avowed policy of religious pluralism that Foreign Minister S. M. Krishna during his recent visit chose to go to the shrine of Data Ganj Baksh at Lahore. Compared to Zardari, Mr Krishna called empty-handed. Whatever offerings he brought, he had delivered already in Islamabad.

Interestingly, before he left New Delhi, Indian newspapers revealed that visas would be given on arrival to citizens above the age of 60. The protocol signed in Islamabad, however, increased that age to 65. At a stroke, only Midnight’s Children became eligible for this facility.

For my Hindu hosts at Ajmer and Muslims like me at Pushkar, prayers may begin with individual belief, but they combine somewhere higher into a common faith that only saints understand. Perhaps, therefore, the next round of India-Pakistan talks should be held somewhere within walking distance of both Ajmer and Pushkar. Difference in religion drove us apart; commonality of belief could well bring us closer.

The writer is an author.

The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Comments (16) Closed

Mac Khan Sep 20, 2012 11:20pm
The truth is that Pakistan was created for the Muslims of Northern India (Bengal, UP, etc] and imposed on unwilling West Punjab, NWFP, Sindh and independent Baluchistan.
Siddhartha Sep 20, 2012 10:15am
Excellent artcle.... loved reading it
observer Sep 20, 2012 09:58am
I started reading this piece but after one third of it, I lost interest.
aviratam Sep 20, 2012 07:55am
"Difference in religion drove us apart, commonality of belief could well bring us together". Nicely said.
kamaljit Singh Sep 20, 2012 07:56am
Excellent Janab.Waiting more such soothing stuff. Done with daily dose of politics.
Muhammad Ahmed Sep 20, 2012 07:52am
It was indeed a well written piece. I am just slightly confused by reference to Midnight's Children. There is no mention of how our honorable president can hand out a million dollar cheque when the need might be greater for the recent flood victims. I hope this is from his personal funds because it would seem like an unnecessary extravagance if the state has to take the burden for the personal wishes of president and his deceased wife. On a separate note, your conduct as principal of a well known institution in Lahore is being questioned with a report indicating how certain pupils were admitted even though they had not performed well in the entry test. I hope you will also address those accusations so the unnecessary slandering of your name can be halted.
Komal S Sep 20, 2012 05:22am
I am from Chennai India and my father who used to work for Central Government used to say some of the Muslims from his office emigrated to pakistan in the fifties, only to come back later in 3-6 months saying it is not a place for Tamil Muslims and Indian Government took them back into their jobs. So the myth that pakistan was created for all muslims in the sub-continent is not quite true as very few of them from south of Vindyas went to Pakistan. It will actually be nice if somebody can throw official statistics as to how many muslims from South India actually moved to Pakistan. Other point to note is, south was generally peaceful during partition. The point is two nation theory was dead on arrival from day one, otherwise how would you explain muslims from south felt more at home in Hindu India than muslim pakistan.
s.s.verma Sep 20, 2012 05:10am
Sir my compliments on an excellent piece, capturing todays reality. Well done.
Maarij Syed Sep 20, 2012 04:09pm
Beautifully written piece. Readers of Dawn have missed you for a while.
Krish Chennai Sep 20, 2012 12:55pm
Wow, terrific piece. As a Hindu guy who is short of the rank of senior citizen by 10 years, I still hope to visit Pakistan sometime. But this superlative writing made me lose interest in visiting the shrines both in Ajmer and Pushkar. Kingdom of God is within us, not in externals. Let's not pollute the environment by crowding around these places looking for our bit of salvation. May we all acquire some common sense soon.
A. Nabi Baloch Sep 21, 2012 07:15pm
Main tu Deewani, Khwaja ki Deewani. Vow Ghulam Fareed Sabri Qawwal. I miss him
P N Eswaran Sep 20, 2012 12:39pm
Immensely readable!
suneel Sep 20, 2012 08:57pm
Also, even though there was probably some support for the cause of Pakistan in Northern India, majority of them decided to stay. A significant portion of those who left were forced to do so because of the violence. Only a few immigrated voluntarily (Mostly elite) and their version was more propagated by Pakistani media.....
Maharaj K Razdan,MD. Sep 21, 2012 11:33pm
Excellent article. Both for the Indians and Pakistanis. Will you be able to print it in urdu News Paper?
Sanyam Kaushik Sep 20, 2012 12:48pm
Excellent article. Loved the little bit of sarcasm and the ending punch line "Difference in religion drove us apart; commonality of belief could well bring us closer." I'm sure things would have been terrible at the time of partition that people divided on the basis of religion. I have not been brought up with such extreme religious thoughts. In fact, I always thought, believed that religion is "almost" irrelevant in today's times. Being a good human being is important but that's me. And likewise a lot of my fellow Middle Class indians for whom to study and succeed in life is far more important.
Pradip Sep 21, 2012 03:14am
I absolutely enjoyed the article...a) because its appropriate use of humor in a thoughtful writing and b) because it gave me a glimpse into two holy sites both of which lost their mystique (visiting Chisti's shrine was something I wanted to do very much - having already visited the Dargah of Nizamuddin Aulia in Delhi a few year's back and where I was shocked that while my son and I were allowed inside the inner sanctum, my friend's wife who accompanied us, was not allowed in). I also learned about the changing and ever dismal view of Indian Moslems towards their co-religionists in Pakistan, which was perhaps a sad reflection of real-politic of the last 65 years. Overall Kudos, to the writer to keep the article a forward looking treatise on a complex story that is unfolding before us but that we will not see the end of.