President Asif Ali Zardari may have thought that he was going to Ajmer Sharif on a private trip, but there were two factors at work. First, it was in India, and he was a Pakistani. Second, he was President of Pakistan. Perhaps more important than the borders being placed, there was the fact that the Sufi saints looked suspiciously on persons of power. However, rulers have always been supplicants at shrines, and Ajmer Sharif has been graced by the Mughal Emperor Akbar, who was seeking male issue. Male issue was not just important to him as a subcontinental male, but as an emperor who needed an heir to subdue the fissiparous tendencies that threatened the Mughal state, and Akbar’s conquests. President Zardari may not have brought away, as Akbar did, the assurance of issue (which was fulfilled in the shape of Jehangir), but he did bring away an assurance (hedged in duly diplomatic language) of visits by the Indian cricket team and the Indian Prime Minister. And those were promises made in New Delhi, not Ajmer Sharif.

Of course, when Ajmer hosted Gharibnawaz back in the 13th century AD, it was not yet under the Mughals. It had just ceased to be the Chauhan capital in the area, and had been taken over by Muhammad Ghauri, the founder of the Delhi Sultanate, back in 1193. Gharibnawaz was interred there in 1230. This was an example of how the processes of conquest and preaching used to operate in tandem, though carried out by different persons, and without any apparent coordination. The Sufis may have avoided the darbars of rulers, but the rulers had to come to them. The Emperor Akbar is supposed to have attended the urs of Gharibnawaz annually, walking from his capital, Agra, to Ajmer, barefoot, every year, in fulfilment of the vow he made before Jehangir was granted to him. Asif Zardari is not supposed to have made such a vow, but it is known that he paid his respects at the shrine with his late wife, who had made a vow for his release from jail. However, he must have known that Moinuddin Chishty founded the Chishty sisila in the subcontinent, and the line of transmission is interesting. After Gharibnawaz, the silsila’s head was Hazrat Bakhtiar Kaki, whose shrine is in old Delhi, in Mehrauli. He was succeeded by Hazrat Fariduddin Ganjshakar, who was based even further west than Ajmer, at Pakpattan. After him comes Hazrat Nizamuddin Aulia, again in Delhi, whose present-day shrine is also a very important centre of the Tablighi Jamaat. It should be noted that the sufis seemed to have had a push-pull relationship to power, alternating between the capital and the outlying areas. While the capital is where the monarch was, the outlying area is where the people were, in need of both conversion and guidance. It must not be forgotten that President Zardari’s wife, the late Ms Benazir Bhutto, also visited the shrine at Pakpattan.

It must not be forgotten that the sufi saints used to create a web of relationships, and in a world without borders. When they converted the Hindus, there was no India or Pakistan, which would explain why a sufi like Moinuddin Chishti could come from Afghanistan (as did Lahore’s own Data Ganj Bakhsh), and settle in a place like Ajmer. It was an era without visas, or even passports. There was no legal restraint on travel, even if one was moving from Afghanistan (even then a Muslim land) to an area ruled by Hindus. It was this that allowed sufis to reach out into the heart of India, and how someone like Gharibnawaz ended up buried in Ajmer, in the heart of Rajputana, modern Rajasthan. Yet the modern nation-state, with its borders and embarkation points and border checkposts, emerged on the basis of religion, on the basis of Hindus and Muslims being two separate nations. Thus, though Asif Zardari came from Sindh, which was convenient to hand from Ajmer for conversion, he went as the President of a country, one which had several disputes with the country, India, in which Gharibnawaz’s shrine was located. In the personal relationship between saint and devotee, the court intervened, and it became necessary for the countries to look at their relationship.

The first thing noticeable about this visit is that it produced no results, not in terms of solid agreements, and even Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s agreement to come to Pakistan has been hedged by its happening only when there was some progress. That seemed a polite way of refusing, for there has been no progress on the core issue of the relationship, that of Kashmir. India continues to refuse to talk about it, even though until it does, there can be no solution.

The refusal to talk seriously has led to a number of complications. It has led to the recurrence of the water issue, supposedly settled 50 years ago this year by the Indus Waters Treaty. There has been a recurrence because of India’s damming of the waters that it should leave to flow to Pakistan. Also, because of the Kashmir dispute, the USA, already involved in the region because of Afghanistan, has been able to stick its oar in the bilateral relationship, by telling both sides to talk.

Related to the Kashmir issue is also that of Siachen, of which there was a painful reminder when an avalanche overwhelmed a Pakistani battalion headquarters, leaving 124 soldiers under it. Siachen is, indeed, the highest battlefield in the world, as was frequently mentioned, but it was not as frequently mentioned that troops were up there because India tried to occupy the area in 1980. And it is unlikely to have been mentioned that the area is disputed because it forms part of Kashmir, and there is a quibble about a map reference point which has allowed India to make the area a battleground. That is not the only point at which India has a demarcation dispute with Pakistan. There is also Sir Creek, which unlike Siachen does not form part of the Line of Control in Kashmir, but is supposed to be part of the international border. The dispute lies in an old pre-partition squabble between the Bombay Presidency (of which Sindh was then a part) and a princely state. The Siachen and Sir Creek disputes are said to be near resolution, but India had to be disappointed if it had hoped that President Zardari would say anything about them on this visit.

President Zardari may not have accomplished anything in the court of New Delhi, but that was not the purpose. Pakistan has not had many civilian presidents, and as a result, he is the first civilian President to visit India since his future father-in-law and future wife went to Simla. Since then, military men have been Presidents, Ziaul Haq and Pervez Musharraf, both visiting India, the former to watch a cricket match. That ‘cricket diplomacy’ may have been replaced by Asif Zardari’s ‘shrine diplomacy’, but it will be as fruitless until India is obliged to talk purposefully about the issues, which revolve around the core issue of Kashmir, not the new-fangled terrorism, which India is only proclaiming to claim American attention. The USA must also realise that it is not bringing peace to the region, rather endangering it, by its insistence on talks and contacts even if they do not have any purpose, thus virtually encouraging India to rely on it for blind support.

n    The writer is a veteran journalist and founding member as well as Executive Editor of TheNation.