Monday, Dec 05, 2022

'He Is Of This Soil'

'He Is Of This Soil'

The Indian PM was born here. Gah has now even breached borders.

'He Is Of This Soil' 'He Is Of This Soil'

Gah's Fortune

  • Declared a model village. Rs 11 crore invested in development.
  • TERI allowed to start a solar energy system, now sends technicians regularly
  • TERI has provided 16 solar street lights
  • Provided basic lighting systems in 51 homes
  • A solar hot water system in the village mosque
  • Will now build four community chulhas

There's an unusual classroom in a village in Chakwal district in the heart of Pakistan's Punjab. On the walls hang pictures of three icons of the Pakistani state—the poet Allama Mohammad Iqbal, who composed Sare jahan se achcha Hindustan hamara and then migrated to Pakistan; Mohammad Ali Jinnah, who advocated the creation of Pakistan (the Land of the Pure); and Abdul Qadir Khan, the father of Pakistan's nuclear bomb. Three men who symbolise what Pakistan believes it should be. What it could be.

But there's another icon in this room—in the moth-eaten register of students enrolled in the primary school housed here about a decade before 1947. Student No. 187: Manmohan Singh, India's prime minister.

This is the village where Manmohan Singh was born, and where he lived till he was 10 years old. The village is called Gah; the school has been renamed Manmohan Singh Primary School. Today, this cluster of mud houses and brick structures stands testament to forces that can divide and small gestures that unite two neighbouring countries.

When Manmohan Singh, surprisingly, became prime minister of India, Gah celebrated. His good fortune was to also change the village's fate. The Punjab government there declared Gah a model village, and has invested Rs 11 crore for development.

But there's another project here inestimably more invaluable. The Pakistan government allowed an Indian agency to undertake a solar energy project here. This wasn't a CBM (confidence-building measure) that went through the usual diplomatic channels. Initiated by the Delhi-based TERI (Tata Energy Research Institute), it was cleared by Pakistan's foreign minister Khurshid Mehmud Kasuri during a visit to India and given the nod by Manmohan Singh himself. Outlook was given exclusive rights to the story.

Since then, TERI has installed 16 solar street lights, provided basic lighting facilities in 51 homes and placed a solar hot water system in the village mosque, where water is required for wazu. Villagers have been trained to maintain these systems with the understanding that TERI technicians would travel to Gah when necessary. TERI's Hafeez-ur-Rahman travels from India and when the villagers meet him, they demand more street lamps. He promises to do his best. The Indians now have permission to build four community chulhas in the village.

The electrification project has done more than just improve a power system. It has reopened channels between a PM and the village of his birth. Gah sent him gifts and revived memories. For instance, TERI director-general R.K. Pachauri carried from here revadi (a delicacy in this belt) and slippers for the PM. Dr Singh was delighted and began a correspondence in Urdu with old residents. He asked about Pakhtbano, then the only girl in his school. On hearing she had passed away, he sent a condolence letter to her son. He wrote letters to two other old residents. All this sparked expectations that Manmohan would visit the village on a trip to Pakistan. Says Dr Pachauri, "People have so much stake in the process. Hawkish positions must be overcome. There's so much we can do for each other."

But Manmohan's trip to Pakistan hasn't materialised. The village is disappointed that the peace process has been somewhat derailed. More than anybody else, Mohammad Ali, a farmer and grain trader and a playmate of the child Manmohan. He had located six other schoolmates, and was dreaming of a grand home-coming for the Indian. Says the old man between puffs of Capstan cigarettes: "I would not have been so happy if he had become prime minister of Pakistan. I am happy that a Sikh is prime minister of India, such a large country."

The old residents dolefully talk about the Sikhs and Hindus who migrated to India. (Manmohan's family left some years before the 1947 bloodbath). Raja Ashiq Hussain is the village nazim (sarpanch). He says the Sikhs and Hindus constituted half of Gah's population. They were more prosperous than the Muslims who lived in mud houses. Everybody celebrated Diwali together; a common well existed for all communities. Then the hatemongers poured into the village, mobs of outsiders who issued threats and deadlines to Sikhs and Hindus to leave. Frightened families began a journey across the border, that invisible line which suddenly divided a people into two countries. Those who left early survived; others who began their journey during the madness of the Partition riots were slaughtered.