Ammara Ahmad: There were riots in Punjab at the time of Partition, and Pakistani textbooks allege that Sikhs were the perpetrators of violence. Do you feel the burden?
Ramesh Singh Arora: You are very right. But what happened in 1947 was a tragedy, and some people had vested interests in the violence.
AA: What vested interests?
RSA: Some people benefit from extremism, sectarianism and communalism. They are still quite active. When Pakistan was created, Muslims and Sikhs had lived together for centuries. The bond was broken in a way that it became irreconcilable.
I’ll give you the example of my family. In 1947, when everyone started leaving, my grandfather, who lived in Lyallpur, said his Baloch friend gave him three options – stay, take him along, or behead him. He chose to stay back and I think my grandfather made the right decision. Look at the opportunities I have. On the other hand, we also made a sacrifice. We lost our entire family. It happened with many Sikhs. We must forget the tragedy now and look towards the future.
AA: But there is a problem with the narrative, right? We don’t have too many Sikhs on this side of the border to narrate what happened to them.
RSA: Ninety five percent of people in Pakistan have a lot of love and respect for Sikhs.
AA: Do they stare at you because of your turban?
RSA: Most people give me a lot of respect. But then there are some people who stare at everyone. You are a girl, don’t people stare at you?
AA: Were you surprised when you were chosen as a minority representative in the Punjab Assembly?
RSA: Initially yes, but I had a hint. I had met Nawaz Sharif before the elections, and he praised me and said he wanted to give representation to all the religious communities.
AA: Did you take your oath on the Guru Granth?
RSA: There is no concept of taking an oath on a holy book in Sikhism. You just take an oath to God. We worship the same Allah as Muslims.
AA: What legislation have you been part of so far?
RSA: I have not tabled a bill so far, but I have worked on the bills for women’s rights and local governments. I am a learner at the moment. I look at the proceedings and how things work.
AA: Are you cautious on issues related to Islam and Sharia?
RSA: When I took oath, I said I do not think in terms of majority and minority. We are all Pakistanis, and I am concerned about issues everyone else is concerned about. I am the chairman of the committee on commerce and investment. I believe I have to play my role as a Pakistani.
AA: But if there is a debate concerning Islam, such as the underage marriage bill, would you be careful?
RSA: Pakistan is an underdeveloped country. Its biggest dilemma is the gap between the rich and poor. The rich, regardless of whether they are Muslim or not, oppress the poor. I believe we should narrow this gap.
But yes, raising concerns about discrimination against minorities is my basic responsibility.
AA: You had said that you were “troubled by the migration of Sikh community from the militant infested Tirah Valley in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa”. Have you done anything about it?
RSA: There was a war going on and the situation was worsening. We gave the migrants shelter and food in Hassan Abdal, Peshawar and Nankana Sahib. Now the next step is giving them livelihood.
We also had issues with identity cards. When NADRA was reissuing their identity cards, they wanted their permanent addresses on them. But the problem has been resolved for most Sikhs.
The people who had relocated two or three years ago have some means of livelihood now, and their children are going to school.
AA: What about Sikh women? Are they empowered?
RSA: That depends on the culture of where they live. If they live in Tirah, they live like women from Tirah. If they live in Lahore or Peshawar, they are empowered.
AA: In Lahore, there was a gruesome attack on the Christians of Joseph Colony last year. Has there been a probe? Your party was in charge.
RSA: Nawaz Sharif, Shahbaz Sharif and their ministers visited the locality after the attack and the government rebuilt their houses. Of course we cannot compensate for what happened. Those people went into a trauma. We could only help them with their houses, and finding means of livelihood. But we did dress their wounds. And such attacks were not repeated in Punjab.
We have a provincial ministry for inter-faith harmony in Punjab. And the PML-N has three Christian women on reserved seats now, instead of one.
AA: There are videos and photographs of the attackers. Did you prosecute anyone?
RSA: We must not forget the disparity between the rich and poor again. We must fight this gap as one nation.
AA: Will you also help the PML-N amend the school curriculum? There is an extremist narrative and distorted history in textbooks.
RSA: I chaired a workshop on religious harmony that was part of a series of workshops on the PML-N’s ‘Vision 2020’ document. There were Sikh, Christian, Muslim and Hindu representatives, and we all agreed that we must teach factual history.
[quote]Islam has Jihad, but so does Sikhism[/quote]
There is resistance to the idea of teaching comparative religion, but we must tell children the basic teachings of all religions.
Islam has Jihad but so does Sikhism. It is a struggle against injustice.
And the word “tolerance” should itself be examined. It implies force. We should replace it with “acceptability”.
AA: You said that “sites sacred to other religions will also be restored through the Evacuee Trust Property Board.” Which sites were you talking about?
RSA: In 1995, the PML-N government reopened a Gurdwara in Kirtarpur that had been closed for 50 years. After that, they reopened the Rori Saab in Gujrawala. Then they restored the Sacha Sauda Gurdwara, and Mian Muhammad Sharif donated funds to restart the langar there.
But in the last tenure of the People’s Party, buildings and lands of Gurdawaras were sold in corrupt deals. In Defence Housing Authority, a 500 canal land that belonged to a Gurdwara was sold. Another Gurdwara was sold in the old city in Lahore.
We have stopped the practice, and want Hindu, Sikh and Christian sites protected. The sale in DHA was reversed after the chief justice took suo motu notice.
AA: You said Pakistan should negotiate with India to build “Kirtarpur corridors” to facilitate visitors. Elaborate on that plan.
RSA: We want yatris from India to have a visa-free or easy access to their holy sites in Pakistan. We want to develop the area around Kirtarpur as an economic hub. The earning will also bring revenue to Pakistan.
A committee formed by the chief minister and chaired by the Auqaf secretary is working out a plan.
[quote]Our security agencies will determine Pakistan’s interests[/quote]
AA: Will the army approve?
RSA: I cannot comment on the security aspect of the project. That is not our area. Our security agencies will determine Pakistan’s interests.
AA: Are there tensions between Hindus and Sikhs in Sindh?
RSA: A majority of Hindus in Sindh consider Guru Nanak as their Guru. Many of them are now converting to Sikhism. There is a lobby that wants to stop that. They dishonored the Guru Granth Sahib.
Sindh has very few Gurdwaras, so Hindus keep Granth Sahib in their temples. They went into the temple and burned it.
AA: Do you face security threats?
RSA: No more than any other regular Pakistani.
AA: What were you doing before you began politics?
RSA: I began my career as a micro-finance program officer in a rural support program called Wahari. I worked in the Punjab Rural Support Program for five years, and then joined a World Bank funded project Pakistan Poverty Alleviation Fund.
In 2008, I got an offer from the World Bank to develop an organization called Mojaz. It offers financial services, vocational and technical training, and capacity-building, among other things.
AA: Why did you join the PML-N?
RSA: When I established the Mojaz foundation in Narowal, I met Ahsan Iqbal and often asked him for guidance. In 2013, he said I should move from community development to the development of Pakistan.