Team Horizon had the honour to interview Ambassador-At-Large for Kartarpur and Member of Punjab Assembly Sardar Ramesh Singh Arora at PML-N Party Secretariat 180-H Model Town, Lahore. We are pleased to share this cordial conversation with our readers.
Horizon: Welcome and thank you very much for taking time out of your busy schedule for this interview.
Sardar Ramesh Singh Arora (SRSA): Pleasure is all mine. I have been reading Horizon since its launch and I am honoured to be interviewed for the official publication of our party. I also take this opportunity to extend felicitations on Eid-Ul-Fitar to the whole Pakistani nation and especially our Muslim brethren.
Horizon: Please tell us about yourself, where you were born and how was your childhood?
SRSA: Originally, my family belongs to Faisalabad (Lyallpur) but it moved to Nankana Sahib in 1965. I was born on 11 October 1974 in Nankana Sahib and spent my childhood there. I consider myself lucky that I was born in the same city as the founder of our religion Baba Guru Nanak Sahib, which is the wish of all the Sikhs of the world. My early education is also from Nankana Sahib. My school was the famous Government Guru Nanak High School, Nankana Sahib, which is a pre-partition school and has notable alumni on both sides of the border, who contributed to society, economy and development. Then, I came to Lahore and did B.Com from Punjab University, Lahore.
My parents wanted me to become an engineer, but I didn’t have a passion for engineering. Later, I developed a liking for journalism and worked in a Punjabi newspaper, ‘Bhulekha’ for some time as a volunteer.
Horizon: Your profile says that you are a development sector expert. Tell us something about that.
SRSA: After my graduation, I had three job offers from MCB Bank in Lahore, Save the Children in Sialkot and National Rural Support Programme (NRSP). My first preference was to join the bank, my second was Save the Children, and my third preference was NRSP but on guidance, rather strict instructions from my mentor Dr Riaz Ahmad Khan, I joined NRSP in Vehari. This was my start in the development sector. I would also like to share that this job was offered to me on the birthday of Baba Guru Nanak Sahib. Later, I joined the Ministry of Finance, but soon I realised that a government job wasn’t suitable for me so I decided to quit.
Then, in 2007, I got an opportunity to get international seed funding through Pakistan Poverty Alleviation Fund to establish my own organisation. Its only condition was that the programme must be established in an area where the majority is rural population. I chose the area of Kartarpur, as this is where Baba Guru Nanak Sahib spent the last 18 years of his life. This is how Mojaz Foundation was set up , with a head office in Narowal. Gurudawara Kartarpur Sahib was first opened for devotees by the government of Mian Nawaz Sharif sahib in 1999 and the honour of head granthi (custodian of Guru Granth Sahib) went to my elder brother. We worked in micro-finance and education.
I relocated to Kartarpur Sahib and developed a rapport with PML-N leader Ahsan Iqbal. I used to seek his guidance on various matters related to our organisational work. Then came the 2013 elections. Ahsan Iqbal encouraged me to join politics and recommended my name to the party for a reserved seat for minorities in the Punjab Assembly. I was introduced to Mian Nawaz Sharif and the rest is history.
Horizon: You were the first Sikh legislator in the history of Pakistan. How do you describe it?
SRSA: Sikh community in Pakistan is only between 20,000 to 25,000 people scattered in different areas like Nankana Sahib, Peshawar, Sawat and Buner. Our community is non-political and I give all the credit to PML-N leadership Mian Nawaz Sharif sahib and Mian Shehbaz Sharif sahib for putting their trust in me. I would also say that my nomination was not only based on my being a Sikh, but they made this nomination on merit seeing my work in the development sector.
I want to convey to the readers that Sikhism’s relationship with Pakistan is that of nail and flesh, which can never be separated. Every Sikh, no matter where in the world, be it the UK, Canada, Australia, Pakistan and even India, prays for peace and prosperity of Pakistan because a majority of our holiest sites are in this country.
The PML-N decided to give representation to the Sikh community in parliament, work on establishing the Kartarpur Corridor, and also bring a development professional to the team by nominating me.
Horizon: How do you describe your role as a legislator?
SRSA: I have been a very active legislator. I always participate in debates in the assembly. As a legislator, I have done extensive work on malnutrition, stunted growth and minority rights. We passed several resolutions to recognise the services of minority members and establish the birthday of Guru Nanak Dev as a public holiday.
A landmark achievement of that time was the passing of the Punjab Sikh Anand Karaj Marriage Act 2018, which was passed unanimously in the Punjab Assembly, with the opposition joining in. I would especially like to thank Shehbaz Sharif, who was then chief minister, for expediting this process. You would be pleased to know that Pakistan was the first and the only country in the world which passed a separate law to govern Sikh marriages. Not even India, where the majority of the world’s Sikhs reside, has such a law.
Unfortunately, the succeeding PTI government did not make the rules of business to implement this law. In comparison, Hamza Shahbaz immediately ordered relevant quarters to start the process when he became chief minister for a few days.
Horizon: You are also ambassador-at-large for Kartarpur Corridor and special assistant to the prime minister on it. How important is this role?
SRSA: Our leadership has entrusted me with this monumental task for which I am thankful to them. This role has given me a unique position to communicate with the authorities of both India and Pakistan, foreign ambassadors and the global Sikh leadership. I will leave no stone unturned to use this position to promote peace and harmony in the region and prosperity for the people living in the area.
Kartarpur is not just a building but has tremendous soft power. I have proposed to the prime minister that visiting hours of the shrine should be extended to 24 hours. We are trying to attract the Sikh diaspora from around the world to visit this corridor. I have also proposed to give fee exemptions to senior devotees.
Pakistan’s Foreign Office can play a leading role by conducting Sikh pilgrimage road shows at the Pakistani embassies abroad and introducing a liberal visa policy for Sikh pilgrims. We also need to develop local infrastructure to offer various tour packages to visiting pilgrims. Evacuee Trust Pakistan Board and Sikh Gurdawara Parpandhak Committee also need to restructure and mobilise to capitalise on the soft component and take advantage of digital media.
Horizon: Do you feel safe when you are in public?
SRSA: In Pakistan, the Sikh community is a privileged minority. They receive so much respect, love, hospitality and cooperation from Pakistanis that whenever Sikh Indian pilgrims return to their country after travelling to Pakistan, they shout, “Long live Pakistan.” Whenever I am in a queue, people allow me to proceed ahead out of respect. I am grateful to the state, government and especially the people of Pakistan for making us feel at home and safe.
Horizon: Thank you very much for your time, Ramesh, now some lighter questions. How was your childhood? Were you naughty?
SRSA: (Laughing) There is no childhood without mischief. I was very naughty and along with my elder brother, I was always climbing trees and swimming in the pool of Gurudawara Nankana Sahib.
Horizon: Do you play any sports?
SRSA: Like the majority of Pakistanis, I used to play cricket in my youth. Though I am still young, I don’t get time to play anymore.
Horizon: Any closing remark or message for our readers?
SRSA: I would like to take this opportunity to set the historical record straight. The idea of the Kartarpur Corridor was first floated by Mian Nawaz Sharif sahib. You can check the archives, I, in a TV interview in July 2013 with renowned journalist Hamid Mir, had given the complete details of Mian sahib’s and Ahsan Iqbal sahib’s vision about the corridor. Mian sahib used to say that he would create this corridor to facilitate our Sikh brethren to worship at their holy site with ease. Once I asked him for government support; instead, he offered Rs300 million from his pocket to serve the Gurdawara. Unfortunately, a gross injustice was done to him when he was removed from office. He is such a great man that when I went to see him in an accountability court after the opening of the corridor, he said, “Congratulations Ramesh, the corridor is open now!”
All Sikhs pray for his health and wish him back at the helm of affairs.
Horizon: Thank you very much brother Ramesh.
SRSA: Thank you team Horizon.