By Rasul Bakhsh Rais
The laying of the foundation stone for a travel corridor in Kartarpur, a border village in Pakistan, on Nov. 28 was a historic event. The 4-kilometer passage will link a place of worship there with another in India’s Gurdaspur district, to allow India’s Sikh pilgrims to move between them without the need for visas.
Many Pakistanis were not aware of the religious and historical significance of the Kartarpur Sahib Gurdwara, an important place of worship for the followers of the Sikh religion. In fact, not much was known about it outside of Sikh communities in India, Pakistan and around the world.
Besides being a gurdwara — a Sikh place of worship — it is also the burial place, according to some traditions, of Baba Guru Nanak, the founder of the Sikh religion. There is a grave there where some people believe his Muslim followers buried him when he died. Sikhs, on the other hand, believe he was cremated there. However, there is agreement that Baba Guru Nanak lived the last 18 years of his life at the gurdwara and died here. He preached there and great numbers of his followers congregated there.
Because of this close association with the founder of the Sikh religion, Kartarpur Sahib Gurdwara is one of the most sacred places of worship for Sikhs, but its doors have been closed to them for the past 70 years. The division of Punjab at the time of Partition placed the gurdwara on the Pakistani side of the border. In fact, there are more places of worship and religiously significant sites for Sikhs in Pakistan than in India, and even during the most difficult periods of the India-Pakistan relationship, they have continued to visit them.
The idea of opening up the gurdwara and making it easier for Sikhs in India to visit, by building a visa-free travel corridor between it and the Dera Baba Nanak shrine in Gurdaspur, has been discussed by India and Pakistan for the past two decades. However, little came of the negotiations, as has been the case with many other things that could benefit people on both sides of the border. The matter resurfaced recently when Navjot Singh Sidhu, a former cricketer-turned-politician, visited Pakistan to attend the oath-taking ceremony of Prime Minister Imran Khan, his friend and also a former cricketer. Chief of Army Staff Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa briefly chatted with Sidhu and told him that Pakistan was willing to open a visa-free Kartarpur corridor that would allow Indian Sikh pilgrims to visit the shrine in time for the 550th anniversary of the birth of Baba Guru Nanak in November 2019. A more formal offer was sent to India through normal diplomatic channels.
Last week, India’s Union Council of Ministers endorsed the idea and agreed to build its part of the corridor. After many years of suspicion, mistrust, verbal sparring and regular skirmishes across the Line of Control — the border between Indian-administered Kashmir and Azad Kashmir — there is a whiff of fresh air in bilateral relations. Will construction of the Kartarpur corridor mark the beginning of a new era in India-Pakistan relations? Maybe, maybe not, but it is nonetheless a historic event for the Sikh community around the world.
In my view, the Pakistani gesture in offering to build the corridor is a part of a new diplomatic message to India and the Indian people. It began when Imran Khan assumed office and made his first speech, during which he stressed the importance of improving relations with Pakistan’s neighbors, particularly India. “If India takes one step, we will take two steps” toward peace and reconciliation, he stated. Although India rebuffed him by canceling a scheduled meeting of the foreign ministers of the two countries in New York in September on the eve of the UN General Assembly, Imran Khan has not given hope of improving relations with India.
His message of hope, peace and reconciliation with India was even clearer and louder in his speech at the ceremony for the laying of the foundation stone for the corridor. He reminded the audience how important it is for India and Pakistan to “break the shackles of the past,” and added that “we shouldn’t live in the past. It should be used to learn lessons.” The first lesson is that a war between two nuclear-armed rivals is not a possibility, so it should be thrown out of any conventional strategic calculations.
There is another, better lesson to learn from the now under-construction Kartarpur corridor, which is that cultural diplomacy can bring people closer to each other, as it touches their spirits and hearts. We can hope that the Kartarpur corridor leads to the construction of further passages that will unite divided communities, such as those in Kashmir. This time next year, when it is hoped the corridor will be open, might serve as an opportunity to think about establishing a “peace zone” between the two Punjabs where people can meet, trade and celebrate their common culture.
The corridor is a big step forward, bold, visionary and groundbreaking, toward the realization of dream for the Sikh community — but also more generally as a proactive move to engage India in building a peaceful, secure and stable region.
(The author Rasul Bakhsh Rais is a professor of political science in the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, LUMS, Lahore. His latest book is “Islam, Ethnicity and Power Politics: Constructing Pakistan’s National Identity (Oxford University Press, 2017).Twitter: @RasulRais