Pakistani birthplace of Indian prime minister yearns for him to visit


Gah, the birthplace of Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, saw a boom in public facilities after Singh took office in 2004. A village health center, a vocational training center for women, and two high schools were built but never staffed. Ghulam Murtaza, a 38-year-old primary school teacher in Gah, stands outside the empty health center. (Richard Leiby/The Washington Post)
August 5, 2012

Dust and dung coat the floor of the never-opened public-health center. Birds nest in the breezeway of the never-used boys’ high school. And staff never came to run the new women’s vocational center.

The government-designated “model village” of Gah, in the parched croplands of Punjab province, was supposed to serve as a thriving symbol of unity between Pakistan and India. Today it feels more like a ghost town, an embodiment of fitful, frequently stalled efforts by the two nations to settle their historical disputes.

Gah, a farming community of 300 squat, mud-brick homes about 60 miles southwest of Islamabad, is remarkable only as the birthplace of Manmohan Singh, the prime minister of India. Last month Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardariinvited Singh to visit Gah in the latest round of so-called “soft diplomacy” between the nuclear-armed countries.

The offer comes as their relationship is slightly improving, at least on trade matters. India’s decision last week to allow investments from Pakistani citizens and companies was taken as another sign of progress, but there has been no lowering of the guard militarily by either side.

This is Pakistan’s second such goodwill invitation to Singh. He had planned to come several years ago at the request of then-military ruler Pervez Musharraf, who embraced a peace process with India in 2004, when Singh assumed office.

Under Musharraf, money flowed into Gah from the Punjab provincial government that was dominated by Musharraf’s party, funding roads, water projects and social service facilities. Pakistan permitted a team of Indian technicians from an energy institute to come to Gah to install solar-powered street lamps, lighting for homes and a hot-water system for the village mosque.

Then Singh’s visit was scrubbed in 2007 amid the political turmoil that led to Musharraf’s ouster in 2008. The attacks on Mumbai that November — which India blamed on Pakistan-sanctioned militants — severely strained a bilateral relationship already burdened by old enmities and suspicions.

Diplomats suspended regular talks on territorial disputes, including the central one of Kashmir, the Muslim-majority Himalayan region over which India and Pakistan have gone to war three times since both nations became independent from Britain 65 years ago.

Funds for Gah’s projects were cut. Already-constructed schools and other facilities were never staffed.

‘It’s all been a waste’

In the impoverished village, news of another invitation to Singh revived both hopes and lingering disappointments.

“We resent that there was no follow-through,” said Ghulam Murtaza, a 38-year-old primary school teacher, standing outside the shuttered health clinic. “As a result you see nothing here, and it hurts the poor people.”

His family donated land for the site of the boys’ high school, he said, when the Punjab government asked the community for help. “We kept our promises, and they have not. It’s all been a waste.”

To Abdul Khaliq, 51, a village leader who has long pushed for economic development, a visit by Singh would highlight a yearning among ordinary Pakistanis: “We very much want peace,” he said. “We believe that both countries need to sit together to resolve the issues, to spend more on the development side, not the defense side.”

Gah’s turn in the limelight started as soon as Singh became prime minister. His Pakistani counterpart, Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain, bestowed model village status on Gah and directed that its primary school be renamed after Singh, who attended his early grades there. Former classmates wrote him congratulatory letters.

Today the locals treat with totemic reverence the original class register, which shows that Singh, the son of a merchant, entered first grade as pupil number 187 on April 17, 1937, and stayed through the fourth grade.

His grades steadily improved, the registers show. The future Indian leader, who holds a doctorate in economics and won notice as India’s reformist finance minister, studied math, geography and Urdu, the most common language in what would become Pakistan.

Singh’s family is Sikh. They migrated to the Indian Punjab in 1947, when the British-ruled subcontinent was cleaved into two nations.

Zardari has proposed that Singh come to Pakistan in November, around the birthday of a revered Sikh saint. He told Singh in a letter that the occasion would “reinforce our mutual desire to promote inter-faith and inter-religious harmony.”

Zardari was following up on overture he made to Singh in April, when the Pakistani president went to India on a pilgrimage to a Sufi saint’s shrine.

That visit seems to have played well in Gah, where people talk of a peaceful pre-partition coexistence among Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims. “It was a better time,” said Murtaza, whose father Muhammad, now aged and ill, was a schoolmate of Singh’s.

“There was no difference of religion or any other things,” Murtaza said, citing his father’s recollections. “Children played together and went to each other’s houses. There was no discrimination. There was coeducation.”

Issues to be worked out

Whether Singh will again walk the narrow streets of his childhood village depends on various unpredictable factors. Indian authorities are keenly monitoring the political situation in Pakistan, where the Supreme Court recently disqualified a prime minister from office for contempt of court and is on course to oust his successor, too.

Amid such uncertainty, New Delhi is reluctant to make any formal announcement about the proposed Singh visit, not wanting to see a replay of the situation with Musharraf.

Indian Foreign Minister S.M. Krishna is scheduled to visit Islamabad for talks in September. One territorial dispute believed close to resolution involves Sir Creek, a 60-mile-long strip of water that opens into the Arabian Sea. It divides a region of the Indian state of Gujarat and the Sindh province of Pakistan.

Another agreement may be near on liberalized visa policies that will enable businessmen from both sides to travel more freely across the border.

“Getting a business visa is a cumbersome procedure – you have to travel to Delhi, get all kinds of letters from Pakistan, get city-specific permits. And then you have to report at the police station every time you enter and exit a Pakistani city,” Rajdeep Uppal, vice president of the Amristar Exporters Chambers of Commerce, an Indian city on the border, explained recently.

“We have been demanding changes for many years,” said Uppal, who exports vegetables and spices and imports cement from Pakistan. “But now it appears that the two governments mean business. They have gone beyond merely talking about it.”

He spoke in anticipation of both nations’ home secretaries formalizing the pact in Islamabad in May, but it never happened. Pakistan postponed the deal, citing the need for more deliberations at a “political level.”

Another impediment to improved ties is Mumbai — specifically Pakistan’s continued refusal to accept evidence that India has developed against the alleged plotters of the three-day massacre that killed 166 people. Pakistani officials also have refused to jail Hafiz Mohammad Saeed, founder of Lashkar-e-Taiba, the militant group that the United States and India blame for the Mumbai attacks.

In Gah, where electricity only arrived in 1998, such disputes take on less importance than basic socioeconomic concerns. The village needs doctors. Two new high schools — one for boys and one for girls — sit empty, awaiting teachers

But Ghulam Murtaza said he no longer can count on his own country’s leaders to care. He looks to India — and to a native son of Gah.

“If Prime Minister Singh could visit, that would make a difference,” he said. “The people here could tell him of our problems. That is our only hope.”

Shaiq Hussain in Islamabad and Rama Lakshmi in New Delhi contributed to this report.

Richard Leiby is a senior writer in Post’s Style section. His previous assignments have included Pakistan Bureau Chief, and reporter, columnist and editor in Washington. He joined The Post in 1991.
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