Flashback: For the love of harmony
In today’s world of globalisation and immigration, it is difficult for the modern man to conceive the spirituality associated with a place. Yet, the finest example of sacred connection which one may hold for a place is that of Sikhs and their love for Punjab. Their culture, religion, art and folklore are inseparable from the history of the region. Punjab is to Sikhs what Vatican is to Catholics and Mecca is to Muslims. For centuries, Sikhs resided in the region and had their holy places there; so it is understandable that when the Radcliff Treaty split Punjab into two, the Sikh community suffered the most in terms of loss of sacred places of worship.
Envisioning the period of the Partition brings to mind the genocidal frenzy which had swept the region. Countless people lost their lives, innumerable women were raped, property was looted and burned, while mass migration occurred from and to the Indian and Pakistani parts of the province as the land of five rivers was bloodily split. Approximately one million lives were lost, while more than 10 million people fled their native dwellings. However, in the mayhem and bloodshed which ensued, there were instances of humanity, love and compassion which prove that men would even risk their lives to protect fellow humans.
Ramesh Singh Arora, a development practitioner and grass root worker, has an interesting anecdote about his family’s decision to remain in Pakistan, even when the majority of his community was migrating to India. He states, “We belong to a village in Faisalabad district. When mass migration began, my grandfather also planned to move. His best friend, Hayat Khan Baloch, was out of the village at that time. When he came back, Sardar Sahib asked his permission to leave as he was under tremendous pressure from his extended family to migrate, given the turbulent environment which threatened their very survival.
“Out of love for his best friend, Baloch Sahib asked him how he could even imagine leaving the place and presented him with three options: To remain in Pakistan; take him along; or to take his life before leaving. Circumstances and choices put the Sardar in a fix, and after prolonged deliberations and heated debates in the family, he decided to stay put while his extended family left without him. Theirs was the only family which stayed back.”
Their friendship exemplified universal friendship and human bonding that stood against the divide of religion, language, colour, caste and culture. It is this feeling of human camaraderie which writers like Saadat Hasan Manto, Qurat-ul-Ain Haider and Amrita Pritam depicted in their stories and which has been promoted by Sufi saints and poets like Waris Shah, Bulleh Shah, Shah Hussain, Baba Farid, Sultan Bahu, Khawaja Farid and numerous others.
“We resided in that village until the 1965 war and after that my family contemplated relocating as there was no Gurdwara in that hamlet, and we really missed the community. Eventually we shifted to Nankana Sahib which, being the birthplace of our first Guru Nankak Dev Ji, holds a sacred status in our religion. When we first moved, there were only few families residing within the city,” adds Arora.
Arora holds fond memories of his early time spent in the city. Explaining at length, he states, “It was a happy-go-lucky and pleasurable time. After attending school and finishing our tuitions we played cricket, hockey, football and other games. We had a large house and all our friends loved to visit us on different cultural and religious festivals. Similarly, we also visited them frequently. There was always a feeling of respect and tolerance for each other.”
“Another enchanting recollection involved our friends going together to fetch milk from a place which was nearly one-and-a-half kilometres from our house on bicycles. There was also a tube-well on the way where we swam and played for hours,” adds Arora.
Initially, there were only two to three families in Nankana Sahib but after 1971, the Sikh community started moving from the Tribal agencies and Fata areas and migrated here due to the restive conditions. Now at least 250 families reside in the area, and though Punjabi culture dominated in the beginning, today Pushto culture is more prevalent in the area.
”Sikhs are very sociable and affable people who are always eager to help those in distress. This is primarily because of the teachings of our tenth Guru Dev Ji Singh, who said, ‘A true Sardar would not harm anyone, would not tolerate any kind of injustice, and would always raise a voice against injustice’.
Aurora explained that Sikh religion was established in 1699. It is commemorated every year in April with the festival known as Khalsa Janam Din in Punjabi, or more commonly Baisakhi ka Mela. It is also celebrated to commemorate the coming of spring, with lots of feasting and merry making. The event is marked by loud cheerful singing with traditional folk dances, known as Giddha and Bhangra. Nearly 25,000 people from the community visit Pakistan to celebrate this event. There are nearly 128 historical sites and Gurdwaras in the country; some of them are functional, but many are closed. As the Secretary General of Pakistan Sikh Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee, Arora is also part of the concerted efforts to reopen them.
Another equally popular festival which coincides with the end of the winter season and the harvest of the rabi crop is Lohri. Hola Mohalla is yet another festival which begins on the first day of the lunar month of Chet in the Nanakshahi calendar i.e. around March 17. On this occasion people exhibit their martial skills and daring mock battles, sword fighting displays, archery and horse-riding exercises are arranged, along with music, dance, poetry programmes and various competitions.
Arora recalls that after his MBA from the University of the Punjab in 1997, he joined the National Rural Support Programme in 1998. He also served in the Pakistan Poverty Alleviation Fund and worked in the Ministry of Finance as a manager in a project. He then established his own organisation i.e. Mojaz Foundation (derived from the word mojza — miracle) in 2008. The organisation started its work from Narowal and later expanded its activities to Southern Punjab and Sindh (Nawabshah district). The NGO makes employment, finances and services more accessible to the poor and marginalised communities.
Taking about his Narowal connection, he says that the historical Gurdwara Darbar Sahib Kartarpur was opened in 1999 by his family and his elder brother was appointed as a priest there. The temple which became operational after 51 years has a very special place in the Sikh religion as their first Guru spent 18 years there and died at the same place. “This is also one of the reasons that I established my organisation in Narowal, as I wanted to serve in the area where my Guru spent many years of his life,” he adds further.
On a lighter note, Arora says that one of the disadvantages of having a limited community here in Pakistan is that one’s options in match making are very limited. The aggregate number of the community is around 10,000 to 15,000 and finding a suitable match is very difficult at times. The Indian side of the family usually avoids offering their girls for marriage because of visa problems and tensions between the two countries.
Husband of a fashion designer and the father of two young girls, Ramesh Singh Arora has a satisfying life. He has travelled to many countries, but prefers to live in Pakistan where he enjoys a lot of respect and affection.