Why Pak PM Ashraf's Ajmer visit is being needlessly politicised

In 2001, while visiting India for official talks with the AB Vajpayee government, Pakistan's then military ruler Gen Pervez Musharraf was scheduled to offer prayers at the dargah of Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti's dargah in Ajmer. Since the talks in Agra appeared tantalisingly close to a historic deal, Musharraf delayed his departure for Ajmer. But in the end, even the Agra summit collapsed in a heap of mutual recriminations, and Musharraf left  in something of a huff, his face contorted with suppressed rage. And since the summit proceedings had gone into overtime, his schedule went horribly awry, and he was compelled to cancel his visit to Ajmer.

For those given to a superstitious bent of mind, Musharraf's failure to keep an appointment with the "saint of the poor" was perceived as an inauspicious omen. The visiting Pakistani delegation therefore attempted to spin the story to its advantage by claiming that Musharraf's pilgrimage had been spiked by a spiteful Vajpayee administration. At a press conference that followed the collapse of the summit, the then Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh was pointedly asked by a Pakistani journalist, evidently channelling the Pakistani delegation's propaganda, why Gen Musharraf had been "not allowed" to visit the Ajmer dargah - and instead kept confined to his hotel suite in Agra.

Jaswant Singh's response was masterly. "Mera kya auqat hai main kisi ko rokhoon?" (What authority to I have to stop anyone?) It's famously said, he added, that only those who have received a hukm from garib nawaz  can turn up at his door.

The  Pakistan PM's pilgrimage to Ajmer is being needlessly politicised. Reuters

The Pakistan PM's pilgrimage to Ajmer is being needlessly politicised. ReutersAjme

Musharraf would, of course, receive such a  hukm some four years later. On that occasion, however, he made Ajmer his first stop - before coming to Delhi - presumably to ensure that schedules-gone-awry would not  spike his trip yet again.

A visit to the Ajmer dargah has been something of a pit-stop for Pakistani leaders whenever they feel besieged by political events back home. Even some of Pakistan's most authoritarian dictators - from Gen Zia-ul-Haq to Gen Pervez Musharraf - evidently felt compelled to offer worship to Ajmer Sharif, even though they manifestly failed to imbibe the saint's Sufiana message and instead opted for the pursuit of a militant Islamist politics back home. Benazir Bhutto too came calling, as did her husband and President Asif Ali Zardari last year.

In more recent times, as happened with Zardari and is currently the case with Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf's current visit, a piligrimage to Ajmer - made in a personal capacity - has provided the platform for informal official discussions with the Indian government. When Zardari was in Ajmer last year, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh used that visit to host an unofficial lunch in his honour in Delhi.

Even today, External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid is meeting the visiting Pakistani Prime Minister unofficially. Since relations between the two countries have been strained in recent months, particularly after the recent flare-up of tension along the Line of Control and the beheading of an Indian soldier, the Indian government does not evidently wish to honour Ashraf in the same way that it did Zardari last year for fear of being seen to be making too many unilateral concessions to Pakistan, particularly when there is little by way of reciprocity from the other side.

In any case, it is difficult to advance official level talks in any meaningful way during what is after all a pilgrimage: to do so would make for bad optics insofar as it fuses religion and politics. The discretion being observed by the Indian government on this score is entirely right.

On the other hand, the spiritual head of the Ajmer dargah, Dewan Syed Zainul Abedin Ali Khan, has indecorously muddied the water by raising a political point to boycott the Pakistan Prime Minister's personal visit.  Khan, who claims lineage to the Sufi saint and is the spiritual head of the dargah, went public with his comments that he would not roll out the traditional welcome afforded by dargah officials to visiting heads of governments in protest against Pakistan's beheading of the Indian soldier, and the "continuing atrocities against minorities" in Pakistan.

Sounding rather more like a politician than a spiritual head, Khan said: “I expected the Pakistan Prime Minister to bring back the head of the Indian martyr and tender an apology to the people of India and the family of the soldier." Such a course of action would have paved the way for friendly relations between the two countries, he added.

Khan's injection of politics into the spiritual protocol at the Ajmer dargah is entirely unfortunate - particularly given his record of using the visit of dignitaries to settle scores with the dargah management and the khadims at Ajmer. The Dewan and the khadims are the two power centres at the shrine, and have been at odds with each other for years over how the offerings at the tomb ought to be shared; they have even gone to court in this matter.

The selfsame Khan had in 2001, when preparations for Musharraf's (subsequently aborted) visit were under way, insisted on accompanying the visiting President around the dargah. When the dargah management had pointed to protocol to claim that the Dewan's role was restricted to welcoming the visitor at the Nizam Gate, Khan had even written to the District Collector threatening to boycott Musharraf's visit if he was denied the honour of perambulating with the General.

In other words, Khan was virtually tripping over himself to honour Musharraf, an unvarnished military dictator who masterminded the Kargil war on India and oversaw a jihadist campaign of terror against India. But he finds the visit of a weakling lame-duck Pakistani Prime Minister, who is just marking time until the elections, offensive?

It appear that Khan is cynically exploiting the sense of outrage among Indians over the beheading of the soldier along the Line of Control in order to advance his  case in his turf war with the dargah administration in Ajmer.  In so doing, he is also guilty of mixing religion with politics in the most mercenary way, even if may seem that he is channelling the voice of many Indians who disfavour normalisation of relations with Pakistan in the absence of any effort on its part to wind down its terror campaign against India.

What Jaswant Singh said of Musharraf's visit is just as true today. If the Pakistan Prime Minister is visiting Ajmer in his personal capacity, he must have received a hukm from the garib nawaz. As the Ajmer Sharif's descendant, Khan ought to honour that hukm. He is guilty of going beyond his auqat when he cynically plays politics - by channelling nationalist sentiments - in order to settle scores with the dargah management.