World leaders including Golden Temple on their itineraries speaks to global influence of Sikhs

Stephen Harper and David Cameron

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper (left) and British Prime Minister David Cameron both ensured to visit the Golden Temple in Amritsar, Punjab on their recent visits to India. Photo illustration/Getty Images

Chandigarh, Feb 22 (IANS) When world leaders visit the Sikh holy city of Amritsar, it is not religion but politics on their minds.

The holiest of Sikh shrines, Harmandar Sahib, better known as the Golden Temple, is one stop that world leaders strive not to miss when in India. The reason? Countries like the U.S., Britain and Canada have a large population of migrants from Punjab, especially Sikhs. Many of them have done well in these countries and wield political and economic clout.

David Cameron became the first British prime minister to visit Amritsar this week. He not only offered prayers at the Golden Temple but also went on to express regret for the massacre of hundreds of innocent and unarmed Indians by British troops at the Jallianwala Bagh on April 13, 1919. Cameron described the massacre as a “shameful” incident.

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper was in Punjab in November last year. He offered prayers at Takht Keshgarh Sahib, another holy shrine of Sikhism at Anandpur Sahib, 85 km from here. It is the birthplace of the Khalsa Panth, the community of Sikhism.

Harper, however, visited the Golden Temple in November 2009 and offered prayers. He spent nearly one hour inside the shrine complex. Harper even omitted Hyderabad from his itinerary to make sure he visited Amritsar.

Canada is home to a large population of immigrants from Punjab, especially Sikhs. A number of members of the Canadian parliament, ministers, officials and other influential people in the country have roots in Punjab. Recent figures also show Punjabi has become the most common language spoken in Canada behind official languages English and French.

Punjab Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal accompanied Cameron and Harper during their visits. The Sikh clergy has been rolling out the red carpet for high-profile visitors such as these.

U.S. President Barack Obama came close to visiting the Golden Temple in October 2010 during his official visit to India. His proposed visit, however, ran into a controversy over the headgear he would wear to enter the shrine. Under Sikh religious traditions, every devotee to the shrine has to have his head covered. But a White House security team, which visited Amritsar, was not in favour of Obama wearing the traditional scarf to cover his head during his visit to the Golden Temple. The scarf, they felt, may convey an image of him appearing to be a Muslim, an impression the Obama team wanted to avoid for political reasons back home. The visit was finally called off.

Sikh religious leaders said the doors of the shrine would remain open to him and he could wear any headgear, even a cap or hat, for his visit.

British monarch Queen Elizabeth II visited the shrine in 1997.

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