India, Pakistan can make a fresh start from Kartarpur
The potential for good far outweighs the chances of a negative outcome. Nanak's message of peace, and understanding will resound in both countries and, hopefully, bring them and communities closer together.
Today, November 12, 2019, will go down as a historic day for all those belonging to two of the three major religions of India and Pakistan, Muslims and Sikhs. It will perhaps pave the way for better relations between the two countries. As I write this, two days before the 550th birth anniversary of the founder of the Sikh faith, Nanak Dev, a historic corridor, linking India and Pakistan has just been inaugurated, on the Indian side, by its Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and on the Pakistani side by its Prime Minister Imran Khan.
On the same day, the Indian Supreme Court gave its unanimous judgement on a dispute going back 70 years, which concerns the contested land in the city of Ayodhya, where a mosque, built by the first Mughal ruler of India, Babur, was destroyed by Hindu fanatics in 1992. But we won't go into Ayodhya in this column, only the corridor.
To his credit, Imran Khan took the initiative. He invited friends from India for his swearing-in, but only Navjot Singh Sidhu, a Test cricketer turned politician, like Imran Khan, accepted the invitation. At the ceremony, Sidhu made an unusual gesture, for which he has been criticised roundly by some but praised by others (I am among his supporters).
Sidhu had embraced the Pakistan army chief, General Javed Bajwa, when the General announced that Pakistan would build a five-km-long corridor between one gurdwara (Sikh temple), called Dera Baba Nanak, on the Indian side, and the other gurdwara, Darbar Sahib, on the Pakistan side in the town of Kartarpur, for Sikh pilgrims wanting to celebrate the 550th birth anniversary of Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism. Both gurdwaras are closely associated with him. Kartarpur is where he spent the last 17 years of his life and where he died. November 12 is his birth anniversary.
He is not only revered among the Sikh and Sindhi communities, but by many Muslims in Pakistan as well. A number of gurdwaras built in his memory are located in Pakistan since he spent much of his life travelling all over what is now India and Pakistan.
Essentially, he tried to find a middle path between Hinduism and Islam. Hence, he rejected the then Hindu practice of untouchability and the caste system, along with idol worship. Nanak was the first of the ten Sikh 'gurus'. During the lifetime of subsequent Sikh gurus, persecution of the Sikhs began under Mughal rule, making the Sikhs more militant. Indeed, the last Sikh guru, Gobind Singh, formed an army of his followers and fought against Mughal rule. But Nanak and his teachings were different, borrowing a great deal from Sufi Islam.
Four main personalities have occupied centre stage on the Kartarpur corridor issue: the two elected leaders of Pakistan and India, Imran Khan and Narendra Modi, of course, the Chief Minister of the Indian state of Punjab, Captain Amarinder Singh, and the maverick Sidhu. Imran Khan, took the initiative and clearly caught the Indian government on the wrong foot. But New Delhi belatedly said it would cooperate with Islamabad in building the corridor. Bear in mind that ties between the two countries were then rapidly going downhill, following India's 'surgical strike' across the border and, more recently, the abrogation of Article 370, which gave Kashmir a special status. Remember also the frosty relationship between the Punjab Chief Minister and Sidhu, who has made little secret of wanting to be the chief minister himself.
The Nanak anniversary offered a chance to improve relations between India and Pakistan, while placing Captain Amarinder back into the limelight (he was among the first of the Sikh pilgrims to go to Kartarpur, along with former Indian Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh, a devout Sikh himself).
However, for reasons that are still unclear, the Pakistan army has thrown a spanner in the works by declaring that all the Sikh pilgrims will need passports, even though Imran Khan had earlier said that no passports were required, only a proof of identity. A $20 fee is also apparently being charged by the Pakistan authorities. That may sound nominal for international travellers but for a poor Sikh pilgrim from a village, Rs1,400 is a substantial amount. There are other apprehensions.
Islamabad might use the opportunity to stoke the fires of Khalistan (an independent and breakaway Sikh state), as it did in the 1980s. Some of the Sikh pilgrims who are going to the Kartarpur gurdwara from the Pakistan side are known to have Khalistani sympathies. Whether they will display them openly, or raise anti-Indian, separatist slogans remains to be seen. Security concerns are being voiced by both countries.
However, the potential for good far outweighs the chances of a negative outcome.
Nanak's message of peace, of universality and understanding will resound in both countries and, hopefully, bring them and their communities closer together. That is what well-wishers, not just in India and Pakistan, but all over the world, are hoping for.
Rahul Singh is a former Editor of Khaleej Times
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