By Dr. Bilal Ahmad
final resting place of the founder of Sikhism, Baba Guru Nanak, is the second
holiest place of the Sikh religion. It is located near Pakistan’s northeastern
border with India. Pakistan, in a landmark agreement signed recently with
India, has established a corridor that gives Sikhs from India visa-free access
to their holy site. This unprecedented gesture of respect and compassion will
enable about 5,000 devotees to visit the shrine each day. The agreement will
come into effect on the 550th anniversary of Guru Nanak’s birth after a formal
inauguration by Prime Minister Imran Khan on Saturday.
Pakistan’s move is being hailed as a victory for humanity. Sikh devotees from across the world are traveling to Pakistan for the celebrations. But reaching this point has not been easy. In the face of human rights violations in Indian-occupied Kashmir, where Muslims were not even allowed to congregate for Friday prayers, it is Pakistan’s empathy and level-headedness that has enabled the agreement to be reached.
Instead of employing a tit-for-tat policy with India, Pakistan chose empathy over odium and reason over realpolitik. Defying all odds, Khan stuck to his promise to the Sikh community. No wonder that on the eve of celebrations for Guru Nanak’s birthday, gratitude is being expressed to the Pakistani leader by Sikh communities across the world.
Sikhism was born in undivided Punjab in the late 15th century. After the partition of British India in 1947, most of its followers lived in India while its holy sites fell in Pakistan. In addition to Kartarpur, the holiest place in Sikhism — Guru Nanak’s birthplace — is also located in Hasan Abdal, Pakistan. Over the years and despite a number of wars between the two neighbors, Pakistan’s government has always allowed Sikh devotees from India to travel to their holiest sites in Pakistan.
During his election
campaign and after forming government in 2018, Khan emphasized that Pakistan
will safeguard the rights of minorities at any cost. In this regard, he not
only listened to the wishes of the Sikh community in Pakistan but also
responded kindly to calls from the Sikh community across the border for the
Kartarpur corridor to be opened. In doing so, Pakistan’s people and its
leadership showed unwavering commitment to interfaith harmony and pluralism,
and ignored the negative environment of jingoistic exclusionism and naked
majoritarianism emerging from its eastern neighbor.
Pakistan is a bastion of Islam, a religion with the word “peace” engraved into its name. The country is motivated by the positive Islamic ethos set across the world. It is inspired by the way the Custodians of the Two Holy Mosques have facilitated the pilgrimage of millions of Muslims, irrespective of their sectarian and political views, over the decades. Most countries have enshrined in their constitution the responsibility for protection and promotion of the fundamental human rights, including the freedom to worship. However, Pakistan, in providing visa-free access to the Sikh community, has fulfilled the requirements of Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, in their true spirit.
The large-hearted welcome to people of other faiths shown by Pakistan’s people and government is by no means limited to the Sikh community. Last month, in the same spirit, Pakistan arranged a visit of Thai pilgrims, led by their chief monk, to perform rituals at the oldest Buddhist sites. They appreciated the fact that Pakistan was preserving and protecting its multicultural heritage as the shared heritage of mankind.
Today, Pakistan is focused on the welfare of its people, including minorities. It has moved on from peaceful coexistence to fostering communal relations on the basis of mutual respect and understanding. This was the reason the Kartarpur talks were not sacrificed by Pakistan on the altar of other complex political issues. Instead, these talks now show how real progress can be achieved by focusing on people and resolving their problems through empathy and compassion, rather than coercion and intimidation.
(The author Dr. Bilal Ahmad is a Pakistani diplomat at the Pakistan Embassy in Riyadh.)