By Dr. Hasan Askari Rizvi
The inauguration of the Kartarpur Corridor on November 9, 2019, that links the Indian border with the Shrine of the founder of Sikh religion, Baba Guru Nanak, in the Narowal district of Pakistan, is a history-making event. The four-mile-long modern highway enables Indian Sikhs to enter Pakistan and travel to the shrine on a day’s trip without a passport and a visa. Such a gesture is a major departure in the long history of troubled India-Pakistan relations. Pakistan took the initiative on the eve of the 550th birth anniversary of Guru Nanak and India responded positively for the first visa-free opening on their border.
The permission to Indian Sikhs to visit the Kartarpur shrine in Pakistan’s attempt to replace traditional diplomacy with ‘comprehensive diplomacy’, which recognizes the primacy of official and state-level interaction, but it supplements it with multifaceted societal interaction. It covers several non-official activities including visits of media and academic groups, student exchanges, tourism, projection of heritage and culture and art and architecture. Similarly, sports and cultural activities are also used to build a positive image of a country, especially if a country has sportspersons of international repute.
One area of comprehensive diplomacy is religious tourism. Pakistan has major religious places in the Sikh religion. Also, followers of Buddhism have some of their historical sites in Pakistan. Important artifacts and structures of Buddhism are in Taxila and other areas in the northwest and north of Pakistan. There are Buddhist stone carvings in Swat, KP, and tribal areas. The museums in Peshawar, Taxila, and Lahore have artifacts of the Buddhist era, including some rare Buddha statues. A part of the history of the Hindu religion can be traced back to Pakistan. Several important Hindu temples are in Sindh and Punjab. One well-known sacred Hindu site is Katas Raj in Punjab. In January 2019, the government of Pakistan declared a 1000 years old Hindu temple in Peshawar as a national heritage.
Thousands of Sikhs from India, Canada, the United States, the UK, and the European Union visit Pakistan every year. The Pakistani government has decided to make special arrangements for the visits of Sikh pilgrims. The Hindu pilgrims from India have also started visiting Pakistan in the last couple of years, though their number is very small.
Buddhist heritage and civilization are partly located in Pakistan. Since 2012, delegations from Southeast Asian countries and Sri Lanka have visited Buddhist sites in Pakistan. In May 2012, a Buddhist delegation from South Korea performed religious prayer at the Peshawar Museum in front of the Buddhist statue collection. Such delegations have visited from South Korea, Thailand and Sri Lanka who performed their religious ceremonies in Taxila and Peshawar. South Koreans claim a special relationship with a small town named Chota Lahore in Swabi District (KP). They claim that a Buddhist monk from this town came to what is today South Korea in 384 AD and introduced Buddhism there. The number of Buddhist religious tourists has increased in the last couple of years. Pakistan sent Buddhist statutes and Gandhara art artifacts to South Korea, Sri Lanka and Switzerland for exhibitions in 2016 and 2018.
Pakistan has a rich civilizational heritage that draws a lot of attention at the international level. This includes Mehrgarh excavations (Balochistan) and the Indus Valley Civilization in Mohenjo Daro and Harappa. Another important asset includes the art and architecture patronized by Muslims rulers, especially by the Mughal dynasty. Some of these historical buildings, forts, and gardens have been recognized by UNESCO as heritage sites of global significance. Pakistan’s folk and Sufi music also attract attention outside of Pakistan. There are ancient languages and sites in northern areas of Pakistan, including the high mountains that attract academicians and mountaineers from abroad.
The introduction of modern media and information technology has increased the opportunities for projecting Pakistan’s heritage and historical and cultural sites abroad. This helps to build Pakistan’s image abroad as land with history and cultural patterns that go back thousands of years. This is expected to build Pakistan’s soft image at the global level and strengthen its official-level diplomacy.
The political dividends of Pakistan’s new diplomacy will materialize slowly. The opening of the Kartarpur Corridor is not expected to quickly improve India-Pakistan relations because the BJP government in India, inspired by the RSS Hindu religio-political ideology, does not want to soften its strident approach toward Pakistan. However, Pakistan’s religious tourism and cultural diplomacy will boost Pakistan’s image, neutralizing the negative image created by terrorism-related issues in the post 9/11 period. The new diplomacy will increase Pakistan’s diplomatic clout to withstand India’s diplomatic and conventional military pressures, and it will build counter pressure on India’s current Kashmir policy. Pakistan stands to gain by its new and comprehensive diplomacy and religious tourism.
(The author Dr. Hasan Askari Rizvi is a Pakistan-based political analyst. Twitter: @har132har)