Last week, I was in Jati Umra – a village located around 35 kilometers from Amritsar. It is like any other village in north India, but is well kept with good road connectivity and other facilities. Jati Umra may be just one among many villages in the Indian Punjab, but what sets it apart is that its villagers are proud to say it is where the Sharifs of Pakistan hail from.
When I arrived at a Gurdwara to ask questions about the Sharif family, people gathered to boast about their ties with them. Some came with the pictures taken with Nawaz Sharif’s brother and Chief Minister of Pakistani Punjab Shahbaz Sharif, and some recalled the hospitality they received in Lahore and the sweet conversations they had with the family.
The Gurdwara has been built on a piece of land donated by Nawaz’s father Mian Mohammad Sharif during his visit to the village in 1979. It was where his ancestral house existed.
Gurpal Singh, the caretaker at Gurdwara, showed me a photograph taken with Shahbaz Sharif during his visit to Jati Umra, and spoke about the warmth that was witnessed on both sides. Gian Singh knew Sharif’s father and recalled his childhood memories. He has been to Lahore many times, and has enjoyed the hospitality of the family.
Shahbaz Sharif’s 2013 visit changed the face of the village. The government built a stadium and a water tank, and laid out macadamized roads. The foundation stone in the village mentions his name. Locals say that he wanted to donate a good amount for these works but could not do so due to some technical reasons. However, the Prakash Singh Badal government executed the plan anyway, to fulfill his wish.
Far from what is seen about Pakistan in the Indian media, particularly the TV channels, Jati Umra tells a story of unique bonhomie that hardly shows any inkling of a break up. For them, it is a matter of pride that the Sharif’s rule Pakistan. Them being in power has brought progress to Jati Umra, and the town symbolizes warm ties between two ruling families – The Badals in the Indian Punjab and the Sharifs in Pakistani Punjabi.
Shabaz Sharif had said in his 2013 visit that he wished he was born there. “We sat on the cots and sipped hot milk served by the villagers. My father was emotionally connected with this village because ours was the only Muslim family in this Sikh-dominated village,” he recalled when he accompanied his father to the village in 1979. “It was fate that my father migrated before Partition and I was born in Pakistan. Had my family not migrated to Pakistan, I would have been the son of this village.”
Now, a well-kept grave of Mian Mohammad Bakhsh, the great grandfather of Nawaz Sharif, is the only sign they belonged to the village. “They were rich people, and their warmth was unmatchable,” Gian Singh told me. He said it was the village’s duty to look after the grave.
When told that Nawaz Sharif was undergoing a heart surgery in London, the villagers wished him a speedy recovery and said they hoped to see him in Jati Umra some day.
A village in Chakwal district of Pakistani Punjab has been in the news for similar reasons. Gah is the ancestral village of former Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh. He was born in Gah in 1932, and his school still keeps an admissions register with his name and two of his report cards. Locals say Manmohan Singh’s friends called him Mohana.
I had a quick look at the village in 2012. The villagers were happy that development had knocked at their doors after Manmohan Singh wrote to then president Pervez Musharraf. The provincial government in Punjab built a decent road from the motorway to the village, high schools for boys and girls, a hospital, and a veterinary clinic, and hooked the village up to a water supply. But the projects were left half way after Musharaf lost power, according to newspaper reports.
On the insistence of Manmohan Singh, an Indian organization, The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) set up two power micro-grids in Chak 313 village of Pakistan’s Sahiwal district, as part of an initiative to bring electricity to its people. It was part of its ‘Lighting a Million Lives’ campaign, which has provided electricity to over 380,000 households in rural India. “We are essentially providing technical support to boost energy security in Gah. We have connected several houses through smart grids and have set up 51 solar-based domestic lighting systems in the village since 2006. TERI has also installed 16 solar street lighting systems and solar heaters in all the three mosques of the village,” an official was quoted by newspapers in 2012. The initiatives by both governments brought a change in the lives of the people of Gah.
India and Pakistan may continue to harbour rivalries, but the stories of emotional bonding that emanate from places such as Jati Umra and Gah are inspiring. These two villages have been lucky to have connections with prime ministers, but there might be many more that ordinary citizens would long to visit, to look at their birth places and to contribute to their development.