Religious tourism

  • Hoping that the Punjab government sticks to its promises

The Punjab Chief Minister, Usman Buzdar while laying the foundation stone of Rs 6 billion Baba Guru Nanak University at Nankana sahib, on 12 July, termed the event as “a part of the Prime Minister Imran Khan’s vision.” He did not explain much about the vision and left it for the different audiences to make their meanings. No wonder some of the international media linked “vision” with the promoting of ‘religious brotherhood’ while the Pakistani media linked it more with another case of providing higher education to the students of Nankana Sahib in particular. The ambiguity seems pervasive and, at the same time, operative as a ploy to avoid facing directly the outcome of the discourse of religious brotherhood while reaping the maximum political and economic advantage.

The event was one among many other similar events that have taken place in the last few months where the current government has shown unprecedented readiness for promoting the Sikh community in Pakistan. The confidence and “ease of doing” of the current government is surprising when one reads the reactions on social media showing distaste for many of such events. It compels one to have a better sense of this ‘ease.’

Religious Tourism (Making Pilgrimage) is the most popular term used by the current government for justifying its actions for promoting the minority (Sikh) religious activities. In the background where for most Pakistanis, religious tourism or “making pilgrimage” means going for Hajj, the usage only increases confusion. Further, as there is no loud effort for including local “shrine-goers” as religious tourism within the country, the term is reduced to the non-Muslim pilgrimage in Pakistan.

There is not only seriousness but also a sense of urgency in many of the steps taken such as sidelining the old departments such as Evacuee Trust Board, Auqaf Department and Ministry of Religious Affairs, and making an active government body, Religious Tourism and Heritage Committee, headed by the Governor of Punjab Ghulam Sarwar in March 2019.  Pakistan can collect $ 4 to 5 billion for arranging a Sikh convention and other activities related to the 550th birth celebrations of Baba Guru Nanak, the governor claimed in one of its recent meetings on 16 July. Sensing that the common man would be surprised to find thousands of Sikhs attending the convention, the Governor also announces to run an awareness campaign, however, did not spell out details and the nature of the awareness campaign.

Heritage is another important term operative for giving justifications rather more comfortably than Religious Tourism. From the tourism to the information policies, state departments of Pakistan are giving importance to the concept of Heritage for charting their policies and programs. The problem, however, increases here because, although using this term in abundance, it is very hard to spell out the relationship between Heritage of Pakistan and the Sikh community. The website of the Heritage department suggests that Pakistan is the land having the seat of multiple civilizations; from Mohenjodaro to Sikh Civilization. The suggestion is that most of the civilizations are dead now.

Punjabi Cultural Nationalism, the third of the element seems more vibrant and playful in understanding many of the underlying themes, especially the ease of the ruling elite. There are claims that it was Pervaiz Elahi, hailing from the big Punjabi landlord family and the then chief minister of Punjab in 2003, permitted the idea of Baba Guru Nanak University. The presence of Brigadier Ijaz Shah, MNA from Nanakana sahib and the current Interior Minister, in the committee for Religious Tourism suggests a lot of overlapping interest.

Governor Punjab Ghulam Sarwar is one of the many other elites of the ruling party in Pakistan, including the premier of the country who earned their success and wealth, by doing businesses or playing cricket during the decades of the 70s, 80s, and 90s largely living in the developed world such as the United Kingdom. It is also one of the reasons that Thatcherism, as a model of liberal economy, becomes a mirror for idealizing Ayub Khan’s economic model. It is easy to forget, for the diaspora, the downside of the accumulation of money in the hands of a certain class as the operative social welfare system in the UK makes the absence of social welfare system from Ayub Khan’s policies as a temporary aberration and not a permanent feature.

It is worth mentioning that the earning of success and affluence was possible because of the South Asian communities of Muslim, Hindu, and Sikhs. It is not difficult to collect stories of success and stardom of the current Pakistani ruling elite. Earning success from “cash and carry chains” or “fast food shops” was a step for many of the struggling Kashmiri and Pakistani Muslim youth during those decades is quite a living memory in the UK. A Sikh in his early 50s memorized a gathering in Birmingham of almost 20,000 South Asians, including Muslims, Sikhs, and Hindus on the arrival of Imran Khan in the vicinity. It was like almost all of Birmingham came out on the streets, he remembered. He still considers Imran Khan and some of the other players, as some of the most praised celebrities even more than many of the Indian counterparts. To my surprise, he did not reduce his praise for IK even when I tossed up his religious identity.

A few other interviews regarding the decades of the 70s and 80s surfaces that the following of IK, and many other Pakistani stars, was because of the large migrated South Asian working-class settled in the UK for making their life better. They had to live their life in the white British society without any chance to relive their own communally divided spaces of the subcontinent. For most of them, a similar language, food, color, and social conditions were the nodes to interact smoothly. It is within this context that our stars and our elite found their fans, customers and money. Living along with South Asians therefore for them is a kind of naturalized experience.

Many of the incidents such as the protest against Salman Rushdie, crackdown on Khalasatan movement and Babari Mosque incident in India, did harden the communal identities, especially among middle classes. However, even recently one just needs to move around the streets, markets and hostels of London and Birmingham to hear the collective voices of south Asian communities, especially Sikhs and Muslims, whether against introducing LGBT- education in early schools or white nationalism. Even if this ease of interaction is getting difficult for certain middle-class communities, it is still seamless for the affluent elite who gauge success by moving in the white elite circles.

So far, Political Pragmatism, the fourth element, seems to be the guiding principle of the current government. There is no doubt a lot of point scoring on the International front and a lot of sympathies are won especially in India for promoting religious brotherhood. To take the whole credit however the government, nowhere, seems to be spelling out the past efforts leading towards these events. Monetary gains seem to be another most significant advantage driving the whole campaign along with the readiness of the local interest groups to extend influence in the area.

A political government has all the rights to take advantage of the new opportunities. However, the population in general, and especially in Pakistan, also requires interpellation and may not be able to absorb the diasporic clarity. The ideas of Religious Tourism and Heritage have been gaining its currency but they are full of ambiguities. Punjabi Cultural Affinities are important for operating locally but still requires a well spread out narration to find currency in the general public. In the presence of still living tradition of Bhakti and Sufi traditions, one hopes that the Governor Punjab Ghulam Sarwar will not find it difficult to run the announced “awareness” program. One hopes that South Asian diasporic experience will help redefine the antagonistic memories and become an advantage for the ruling elite to gain larger support for the increasing presence of Sikhs in Pakistan.