CONUNDRUM OF RELIGION FOR PEACE AND TRICKY REALITY FOR SIKHS
Introductory – the Trigger
The development started out innocuously in August 2018. Navjot Singh Sidhu, Kapil Dev and Sunil Gavaskar, old cricketing rivals on field and friends off field of Imran Khan, Pakistan Prime Minister elect, got personal invite to his swearing in ceremony. India's relations with Pakistan were always iffy but at that moment were almost at their lowest. There were calls by BJP that accepting Imran's invite would be an anti-national act but Sidhu stayed steadfast and accepted the invitation. The news about Pakistani willingness to allow a corridor for visa-less travel to Sikh pilgrims to the Gurdwara Darbar Sahib, Kartarpur came out during that ceremony. After the Pakistan Government's announcement, the Indian Cabinet approval was prompt and that set the ball rolling.
From the start while Sikhs were happy that their long awaited quest for ease of access was at last likely to get addressed, the reactions saw the announcements by the two governments as a sign of possibility of thaw in Indo-Pak tensions. Even though the political situation continued unevenly, the project kept its pace. Its foundation stone was laid on Indian side on 26th Nov. 2018 and two days later on the Pakistan side. The completed corridor was inaugurated by the two PMs on their respective sides on 9th Nov. 2019 in time for Guru Nanak's 550th on 12th Nov. 2019.
The Punjab Assembly held a special session on 6th Nov. 2019 to commemorate the 550th birth anniversary of Guru Nanak and the oncoming inauguration of the Kartarpur Corridor. India's Vice President addressing the session expressed the hope that Kartarpur Corridor will be a shrine of peace, harmony and humanism to contribute to realization of Guru Nanak's universal vision of world as one family. Dr Manmohan Singh, the former Prime Minister of India, said that "Peace and harmony is the only way forward to ensure a prosperous future. The Kartarpur model may be replicated in the future too as a lasting resolution of conflicts".
Proceeding from the above contextual frame and taking into account the views and comments as reported by the media, we will try to understand how even when the intent may be laudable and expectations very honorable, there could be complexities that may impede a project like this in attaining either the peace dividend that is hoped by the political class or the promise of religious and cultural fulfillment that the devotees might be seeking. In the process, using a construct of Kartarpur Model as it played out, we will try and develop a more likely replicable model that may be used elsewhere as a step to resolve intractable issues.
Kartarpur: A Historical Snapshot
Kartarpur, located on the West side of River in Punjab, now in Pakistan, was founded by Guru Nanak and he spent the last 18 years of his life as a householder in that hamlet. As Sikhs moved in to join the community, a sarai was built along with a meeting room for the sangat to gather to listen to kirtan and Guru's discourses. It was in this city that Guru Nanak gave Lehna the name Angad as he named him his successor. He also handed over a pothi of hymns to Angad. Thus the Kartarpur abode of Guru Nanak became the first centre set up by Sikh Gurus and the sangat there came to epitomize the model for Sikh congregation on which the institutional edifice of the Sikh religious institutions was built by later Gurus.
The Guru's following was from both Hindu and Muslim faiths and after his passing both claimed him and raised two shrines, separated by a wall, in his memory. Sikh Wiki records that river Ravi washed away the original abode of the Guru and his son, Baba Sri Chand living across Ravi, had ashes of Guru Nanak 'salvaged and reinterred close to the well of Ajitta Randhava, a devotee of the late Guru, and built a mud hut over it. The place came to be revered as a dehri or samadhi of Guru Nanak around which the present town of Dera Baba Nanak grew.'
Later in 1572, the foundation of the gurudwara in Kartarpur was laid and still later its dome covered with gold by Maharaja Ranjit Singh. The present structure was built by Bhupinder Singh, Maharaja of Patiala in 1925. During the 1947 partition, the new international boundary placed Kartarpur in Pakistan territory and Dera Baba Nanak in India.
Along with other Gurdwaras left in Pakistan, the Kartarpur Gurdwara remained closed after the divide of 1947. Since Sikhs had started asking for easy access to the Gurdwara, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi promised to approach the Pakistan government for Kartarpur to be made part of India in exchange for land elsewhere. Nothing happened. In 1998 a border opening for transit to Kartarpur was discussed by the PMs Bajpai and Nawaz Sharif of India and Pakistan respectively but no headway was made. Gurdwara however was repaired by the Pakistan government and reopened in September 2004 – after 57 years of being closed.
Subsequent to the 1947 partition, practically no Sikhs remained in West Punjab and Gurdwaras were left unattended. The loss of some of the most sacred religious sites and important historical and cultural legacy, had caused deep trauma to Sikhs. The Sikh religious leadership decided to memorialize the loss by adding a Para to the text of ritual Sikh supplication [Ardas], seeking the divine blessing for ease of access and opportunity to serve and take care of the holy sites from which Sikhs had been separated [as a result of the partition]. This supplication has been ritually made thousands of times every day by Sikhs across the globe since then.
The lack of access was not an issue prior to 1947 because all the important Sikh sites were in the British jurisdiction and before that these were part of the Sikh Empire under Ranjit Singh. After partition, not only because of en masse exodus of Sikhs particularly from West Punjab but also due to accessibility to Sikhs in India getting severely restricted because the two countries got embroiled in an undeclared war within months of the end of the British rule and this condition has only got worse over time with no signs of any break in their frayed relations. The power play of two unbending contestants brings to mind Guru Nanak's reflections half a millennium earlier, written during his years at the town of Kartarpur. We are sharing it for its instructive value in conflict situations.
A Baburvani Reflection
Guru Nanak had witnessed the similarly dissipative ways of ruling elite in contrasting lap of abundance and luxury, unmindful of their responsibilities towards the security of the country and well being of the people. It was in this kind of scenario, during the Guru's stay at Kartarpur, that Babur had appeared on the Indian horizon as a powerful invader. The Guru witnessed havoc that Babur's troops unleashed, particularly on the women, who were carried away as war booty. Guru Nanak was deeply touched and penned four compositions, known as 'Baburvani' that reflect on the cataclysmic events from the perspective of divine play in an environment of human failings with its effects on society's peace and harmony – a scenario that likely can replay in conflict zones if no tangible steps get initiated to catalyze move towards peace.
But it may not be that way. My sense is that both the countries are still to heal from the trauma of 1947 partition, coalesce to a collective vision of national identity and pull the population together as cultured, aspiring, and optimistic and forward looking people and start nation building process in all earnestness. This quest has been getting hampered in both the countries by distracting and damaging effects of continuing conflict. At the people level, therefore, while feelings for security of the nation retain paramount position, peace overtures by the leadership, too, are not decried by the public. Instead as we have seen there is groundswell of support for efforts at creating a thaw in the neighborly relations. These are pointers to the possibility that underlying the drumbeats of jingoistic slogans, there is a longing for the romanticized vision of togetherness associated with the composite culture of this region that can subsume ros of the past memories.
Thus while peace has eluded, there is also realization on both sides that full-fledged war between the nuclear powered opponents could lead to massive destruction and yet not resolve differences that separate them. The choices therefore are stark. This state of diminishing hope lies at the back of reasons that make symbolic initiatives like Kartarpur Corridor accord seem like a call from the beyond to the warring neighbors to cool tempers for their own good.
So one does wonder if it may be a play of will divine that in August 2018 during swearing in of Imran Khan, Pakistan Army Chief mentioned in conversation with Sidhu of their willingness to open the Dera Baba Nanak–Kartarpur corridor on 550th birth anniversary of Guru Nanak. The rest is history as all the negatives kept getting out of the way and the Corridor was inaugurated on 9 November 2019, by Prime Ministers of India and Pakistan on their respective sides to the wonder of a still skeptical global community.
Locating Sikh Engagement in Indo-Pak Matrix
We thus see Sikhs wrapped up in the layers of the Indo-Pak matrix as it evolved before and since the creation of Pakistan in 1947. I was 16 when we crossed over to India in late August 1947. It was a traumatic separation but my parents, no doubt nostalgic, talked of old times but never got an opportunity to visit Pakistan. It was hard – not because of just being displaced, that was soon reconstructed but because of a felt loss being Sikhs.
After my visit in 2004 as part of an interfaith group of scholars from the US to grasp emerging phenomenon of Radical Islam, my take on the dilemmas affecting Pakistan-Sikh engagement came round to the view that while there was a need for the Sikhs to engage with Pakistan, the primary focus of Pakistani engagement in the post 9/11 world was and had to be Judeo-Christian West, with India as a secondary focus in view of their continuing low level conflict that was draining both. The Sikh engagement need, which did not seem to concern India, Pakistan or the US, therefore could come in at the tertiary level and given their political position, operate within the constraints set by the primary and the secondary drivers. In my mind there was a clear recognition that proactive Sikh engagement with Pakistan was not an option.
My related inference nonetheless was that Indian Sikhs will always have to be neighbors, across the border, with a vibrant segment of Pakistani Muslims with their worldview and perception of the Sikhs. In the same strain, for Sikhs given their geo-political situation, Muslim world mainly will be Pakistan and the Muslim opinion that may impact them the most would be the Pakistani orientation. As such even though this recognition may not be evident in Sikh thinking, some kind of neighborly engagement should be in their long-term interest.
Spirit, Fall of A Wall, Model, Peace Corridor?
Kartarpur Inaugurated: The Messages Sent Out
The Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi, invoked Guru Nanak but drifted to compare the decision for creation of the corridor to the fall of Berlin Wall in that the project may help ease tensions between the two states at loggerheads from their inception. He also thanked Pakistan Prime Minister for 'respecting the sentiments of India. The opening of Kartarpur Sahib corridor before the 550th birth anniversary of Guru Nanak Dev ji has brought us immense happiness' thus asserting that the longing for the corridor was sentiment of India and not of Sikhs alone.
Prime Minister Imran Khan was candid to admit the he did not know anything about Kartarpur a year back but said that "Pakistan believes that the road to prosperity of region and bright future of our coming generation lies in peace", and that Pakistan "is not only opening the border but also their hearts for the Sikh community." So opening of corridor may bring peace, prosperity and bright future to the region and Pakistan was opening their hearts to Sikh community. He was addressing India for prosperity through peace and extending invite to global Sikh community.
Pakistan's foreign minister said that the corridor has given Pakistan a lot of goodwill in the Sikh community. Pakistan decided to continue with the Kartarpur Spirit as a goodwill gesture despite India not giving similar response. He compared the opening of corridor to fall of the Berlin Wall, which changed the face of Europe. Kartarpur can change the face of South Asia .
The US saw the Corridor as a positive example of neighbors working together for their mutual benefit. A simple transaction based on mutuality of interest of neighbors, not motivated as a giveaway to Sikhs.
The UN secretary general's spokesperson welcomed facilitating visa-free cross border visits by pilgrims by use of Corridor as way for interfaith harmony and understanding – the only message to reflect on the raison d'être – the Sikh longing!
The response of Sikhs was euphoric. Rajmeet Singh, Tribune News Service, part of the first jatha to walk through the corridor felt an upsurge of emotions was all pervasive - divine aura of Guru Nanak was at play - some walked up to immigration terminal, chanting hymns. Playing perfect host, Pakistan PM Imran Khan travelled up to the immigration terminal - devotees awestruck by quality makeover given to the shrine - the four acre shrine premises now is 42 acres, with 3.5 lakh sq ft white marble flooring around the main complex – Navjot Sidhu was mobbed, everyone including Imran Khan crediting him for the initiative – as clock struck 5 pm it was time to return - one of the most memorable days in lives of all who were there! "It is like a dream come true. The Pakistani government fulfilled its pledge to Sikh community in a short period. It is a mega project. Such a huge project has never been accomplished in such a short time in Pakistan's history," Gobind Singh , Granthi of Darbar Sahib, Kartarpur, told DW.
At the last minute all controversies dissolved. CM Amrinder Singh called off the simultaneous event by the state with the PM's event and the PM Modi passed the charge to lead the first jatha from India to Jathedar Akal Takht with ex PM Manmohan Singh, CM Amrinder Singh, Navjot Singh Sidhu and over 500 others following! The spirit of peace and love divine that the Guru epitomized had pervaded the hearts of one and all.
Everything came around seamlessly as if the divine hand was guiding it all. Sikhs were ecstatic and thankful. They had to be for so much was done by the two countries to fulfill a Sikh longing and their leaders were citing Kartarpur Model and Kartarpur Spirit as the way to contain conflict and usher in peace and prosperity for mutual benefit!
Not So Fast: Words of Caution!
From this euphoric pitch, we want to now turn to the notes of caution about the intent and likely difficulties in the peace process that have been expressed on both the sides.
Captain Amrinder Singh, the CM of Punjab has been persistently mistrustful of Pakistani intent. He has maintained that the project is supported by Pakistan IS establishment and it cannot but be an instrument to disturb peace and harmony prevailing in Punjab and promote terrorist activities along the international border in the state. Similar views have been expressed by some experts on security issues in India.
Over three weeks after the inauguration of the Corridor, Pakistan Railways Minister Sheikh Rashid, said to be close to Pakistan PM, has told reporters that "Gen Bajwa strongly hit India by opening the corridor. Through this project, Pakistan has created a new environment of peace and won itself love of the Sikh community." He also added that General Bajwa did not attend the Kartarpur Corridor's opening ceremony apparently to avoid any controversy. The statement by Minister Rashid tends to support apprehensions on Indian side.
With euphoria tempered by cautionary as well as threatening voices, turning to look at the core messages, feelings, hopes and expressions that the Kartarpur Corridor has evoked may give us a more balanced perspective.
Waking Reality Of A Sikh Longing
Actualization Of Longing
The longing for Kartarpur that Sikhs have could well be summed up as cumulative memory of the loss of ease of connection with the Sikh religious sites in Pakistan that were locked and left unattended by the Sikhs as they evacuated en-masse from the parts expected to be separated from India, during the partition of 1947.
The sense of Sikh trauma in the above memory was at the time succinctly summed up by Sikh religious leaders by adding to Sikh ritual supplication 'jinna sthana te gurdhama toon panth noo vichhoriaa gayaa hai unnah dae khullae darshan deedar te sewa sambhal da daan Khalsa ji nau baksho' – grant to Khalsa the boon of unfettered access, worship and management of Gurdwaras and holy sites from which the Panth had been separated. Kartarpur was one of those Gurdwaras and sacred sites.
Carefully looked at the above supplication is not too demanding. With the small Sikh community in Pakistan slowly finding their feet and the setting up of PSGPC in 1999, in spite of the limited autonomy of PSGPC and resource pool or potential of Pakistani Sikhs to be able to care for the sacred Sikh sites in Pakistan, worship service at increasing number of sites has been introduced and the Sikh community is involved in management.
The problem therefore boils down to ease of access, more especially for Sikhs in India because, primarily, of continued Indo-Pak tenuous relations. Otherwise Sikhs do have sacred sites in several countries and even within India that have been unattended or not managed by the Panth or may not have ease of access. The inherent connection of the longing with, more particularly, the Sikh politics of partition and its aftermath is evident
We therefore consider that the actualization of Sikh longing cannot be complete without assured ease of access, as it is taken to be, say in Nepal though that also has been subject to vagaries of cold phases in Indo-Nepal relations, political posturing and blockades but relations did not turn hostile, nor have the Sikhs moved out of Nepal for reasons of lack of safety.
An added peculiar feature of the Kartarpur situation is that in this case the devotees from India come in for a day visit through Integrated Check Post [ICP] at Dera Baba Nanak and by the evening have to return via the ICP to Dera Baba Nanak. The entire set of systems and support mechanisms [devotee facilitation and religious services] that have been created on both sides of the border have to be coordinated across the international boundary. We therefore propose to use the appellation 'New Kartarpur' for the new system created astride the border, for ease of distinguishing its administrative character.
The other factor that is getting introduced in actualization of the longing is that Kartarpur that was, has to be located in the New Kartarpur's contemporary setting. This need has been in part created by the state of art expanded new structures, highways, facilities et al – all by Pakistan. This has to be integrated, built upon and religious services provided per the practices followed in Gurdwaras that have had similar position in Sikh memory, reverence and history.
Kartarpur was never forgotten by Sikhs but, as history unfolded, it also never got rolled into the evolving active, involved Sikh centers like Amritsar, Dera Sahib, Nanakana Sahib. Punja Sahib, Hazur Sahib, Patna Sahib, Anandpur Sahib, Sis Ganj et al. This somehow remained an anomaly that did not receive notice by Sikhs.
The fact is Kartarpur is the place where Sikhi's form was revealed and institutionalized by Guru Nanak, including installation of his successor. As a historical similarity Khalsa was revealed at Anandpur Sahib and institutionalized as Guru Khalsa Panth along with anointing SGGS as the eternal Sikh Guru in succession to Guru Gobind Singh at Hazur Sahib. Kartarpur thus did have a special position in journey of Sikhi but stayed at the margins during all of the last 500 years. Our sense is that travails of discontinuities that Kartarpur experienced and disconnect between the two sides of the River could be incidental to this phenomenon.
On to Looking Forward
Flowing from the above broad matrix, we will now attempt to list/describe the issues, specific to the New Kartarpur project, which would need consideration by the Sikh community. This listing is indicative of the issues in light of our limited awareness and hopefully would trigger a deeper and comprehensive consideration.
The Question of Footfall
The problems that affect footfall so far have been identified as Government impediments as we saw in the review of Early Experience. It however is likely that the flow of devotees may only improve marginally even if the systems are simplified. More increase in flow could be expected if both the governments agree to not insist on passports as the mandatory ID to cross over. Some increase in pilgrim flow can be expected if the issuance of passports is made relatively easier in India and it is confirmed that the data regarding visitors using the corridor would not be shared with any foreign agency by either of the two Governments.
The number of visitors is linked to economic ability and the change in life style that it catalyzes among the potential devotees. It is also linked to the value they attach to the yatra. To think that the only motivation is darshan of the Gurdwara, would be a mistake. Motivation to make a visit to Kartarpur could be based on multiple factors: ease of travel to Dera Baba Nanak; facilities to stay, other places to see, eating places, shopping and other activities, transport facilities and costs for various activities. Economy tourism promoting infrastructure will slowly develop and as the word on experience gets to be known, more people would start gravitating to visit Dera Baba Nanak and thereon may be go to Kartarpur. Very little of the above is within hands of Sikhs. In a controlled economy like India, all these fall in the lap of government.
If we now pause for a moment and think if Sikhs should consider low foot fall as their concern? The fact is from the start the position of both governments has been that the corridor will offer a very restricted day visit facility to Darbar Sahib at Kartarpur from Dera Baba Nanak ICP. Initial offer by Pakistan was a cap of 500 visitors per day that at the Indian insistence, because some Sikhs asked for it, was raised to 5,000, apparently without any serious examination. Then there is the question of $ 20 Service Fee that certainly deters the poor families to use the facility.
Sikhs should best leave the initiatives for increasing the flow of Sikh religious tourists from India to the two governments but should help in enlarging the yatri pool, facilitate their documentation for travel, offer facilities for stay at Dera Baba Nanak during transit and help out with sewa and liturgical services at Darbar Sahib Kartarpur.
Need for Special Institutional Structure
It may not have been obvious to outsiders, but while Sikh politicians picked immediately on the news break about Kartarpur Corridor from their party vantages, Akal Takht and SGPC were not quick to comment on Corridor till almost finalization of detailed agreement between India and Pakistan and mechanics between the state and centre. The slow involvement of SGPC and Akal Takht is understandable because they were not in the loop and getting involved based on media reports or speculation could have been counterproductive.
While the SGPC has the wherewithal for intervening to help out with the systemic issues, as they already have to help devotees with form filling, bus transport facility etc, but for deficiencies of Ragis and Sewadars at Kartarpur, they have sought government help to obtain concurrence from Pakistan authorities. Such requests for smooth functioning of New Kartarpur could continue in the future too because some needs that need inter-governmental sanction do arise. We could also expect the possibility of additional services being introduced as New Kartarpur setup responds to flow rates and need to effectively utilize the extensive facilities that have been created.
We know that Kartarpur played a unique role in the early development of Sikhi. This historical development was accomplished using the facility of the first dharamsal, its sangat, langar et al. The way it worked, should be brought to the awareness of visitors by a miniature model or an audio visual representation by the New Kartarpur setup.
Some work of this kind is understood to be being done by Pakistan authorities by recreating a farm similar to the one that Guru Nanak himself had tilled. It would be a good move if Sikhs also involve, the Rababi kirtanyas coming down from Bhai Mardana and other Rababis who had been associated with Guru Ghar and who have retained their interest in kirtan tradition, to render sewa at Darbar Sahib Kartarpur. Additionally a Rababi could be considered to be made part of kirtan Jathas to complete traditional foursome, choki.
Guru Nanak had created tremendous harmony with both Hindus and Muslims. The latter created a masoleum next to his Samadhi. This structure continued to exist in the building constructed in 1572 which was renovated and expanded in the course of construction of Katarpur Corridor. The Muslim caretaker and his family are said to have lived at the site doing sewa for centuries. Thus the tradition of Sikh-Muslim amity has continued in Kartarpur. As a token of their respect for the Guru, they use Chadar on the masoleum of the same fabric and color as the Romallas used in the Gurdwara. The new Kartarpur setup should allow for all these features to be built in so that their continuity is assured.
A historical feature that was reported uncovered during the construction work was an old well from Guru Nanak's time. This is being restored and after due process of authentication, its story could be considered to be added to the Kartarpur lore presented to the visitors.
It should be considered that if feasible, the Sikh community comes together with the Muslim and Hindu inhabitants of the area to revive the tradition to together sing the praises of the one shared divine Father of all jn an acceptable ecumenical format. So while the national boundaries stay undisturbed, it could act as a trigger for an interfaith tradition to evolve and the chances of future discontinuities and disconnects are minimized. May be some historical precedence can also be found to revive or start an inclusive celebratory event at New Kartarpur in consultation and with cooperation of the other faiths and if Akal Takht.
Closing for Now
Guru Arjun had spoken of the essence of the ideal vision of society in a mini epic composition by saying 'the merciful Lord has now conveyed His command that let no one chase after and attack anyone else and let everyone abide in peace. Let this – halemi raj - benevolent, humble and modest rule prevail. Let, softly and gently, the droplets of divine nectar trickle down — Let us remember too that we all who have come to be together in our lives on this earth, each of us shall return home by a different route. The God oriented will reap profit while the self-willed will lose their investment and depart.' What the Guru is saying does resonate with the hope that we have talked about.
The yearning for peace is universal. Surely Narendra Modi, Imran Khan, Manmohan Singh and Shah Mehmood Qureshi are men of faith and are inspired by the belief in improving the lives of the people when they talk of pulling down the Berlin Wall, the replication of Kartarpur Model and bringing peace dividend of prosperity to the future generations. So the stakes are high and they are common to all in the South Asia region.
We therefore are not going to venture summing up this very fluid situation. It is ongoing and the results of this bold and unique initiative are in the collective hands of the leaders of these two countries. All I can repeat is that the Sikhs are happy and thankful at the unfolding events though they have a vague feeling of perplexity as to why India and Pakistan suddenly turned so kind and benevolent to Sikhs! In their moments of loving devotion for the Guru, though most Sikhs must be praying that the hope for the Corridor be the harbinger of peace and harmony, receives divine blessing!
Verily peace and harmony are priceless and even as our longing for ease of access to Kartarpur is actualizing, we and a huge mass of people are now yearning that the fruit of its fulfillment would be peace and prosperity.
So a longing yields place to a yearning - does it end ever? We do need a Kartarpur Model to keep going all the time! ooo0ooo