Gah, a farming community of 300 squat, mud-brick homes about 60 miles southwest of Islamabad, is the birthplace of Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, but unlike its prodigal son, the fortunes of the village have awaiting an awakening.
According to a report carried by The Washington Post, the publichealth center is in shambles and birds have taken refuge in the corridors of the never-used boys’ high school, while the women’s vocational center has also been always devoid of staff.
It said the government-designated “model village” status for Gah and the village was supposed to serve as a thriving symbol of unity between Pakistan and India. But it feels like a ghost town and an embodiment of “fitful, frequently stalled efforts by the two nations to settle their historical disputes”.
Last month, President Asif Ali Zardari invited Singh to visit Gah in the latest round of so-called “soft diplomacy” between the nuclear-armed countries.
The offer came as relations improved slightly, 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, the paper said.
Singh 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 Punjab 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,” the report said.
But Singh’s visit was botched in 2007 amid Pakistan’s political turmoil that led to Musharraf stepping down in 2008.
The Mumbai attacks in November 2008 broke down all communication and strained the bilateral relationship.
“Funds for Gah’s projects were cut. Already-constructed schools and other facilities were never staffed,” the paper said.
Zardari’s renewed invitation, however, revived hopes, and some lingering disappointments.
“We resent that there was no follow-through,” said Ghulam Murtaza, a 38-year-old primary school teacher told the paper, 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,” he told the post. 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.”
Murtaza said he no longer counted on the 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.”