The Kartarpur corridor will become operational for Sikh pilgrims from 9 November, which marks the 550th birth anniversary of Guru Nanak. This is a new step in religious diplomacy between India and Pakistan, a growing trend around the world. Historically, religion has been seen as the cause for conflict and an obstacle to diplomacy.
But today, a new generation of theologians and politicians have started advocating the need for religious leaders to join the dialogue and become partners in diplomacy. There is merit in this approach.
How the corridor came about
The Kartarpur Sahib, in present-day Pakistan, was founded by Guru Nanak in 1522, and has a special significance for the Sikh community. It was here that Guru Nanak Dev spent 18 years of his life and breathed his last.
The corridor, constructed over four kms, will connect the Sikh shrines of Dera Baba Nanak Sahib in India’s Punjab to Gurdwara Darbar Sahib Kartarpur in Pakistan’s Punjab. Till last year, Indian Sikh pilgrims had to cover an arduous 125-km long journey via Lahore to pay a visit to the Kartarpur gurdwara. Once the corridor is formally opened, Sikh pilgrims will be allowed to visit the site without any visa.
The proposal for constructing such a corridor was first made in 1999. Since then, diplomatic circles in both India and Pakistan have extensively discussed the corridor and tried finding ways to arrive at a consensus. Several Sikh organisations made representations to officials.
Sikh organisations like Kartarpur Sahib Ravi Darshan Abhilashi Sanstha and Sangat Langah Kartarpur were instrumental in paving the way for this milestone initiative. From holding monthly ‘ardas’ (prayers) to writing letters to influential people and engaging in several discussions, their efforts culminated in a positive outcome when Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Pakistani counterpart Imran Khan agreed to build the historic corridor in November last year.
Building ties through religious diplomacy
Since the turn of the 20th century, religion and politics have increasingly become interdependent. The new conflicts emerging in this era of globalisation and their perturbing nature have shown that conventional diplomacy has its limits. A new form of diplomacy based on religious dialogue is taking shape, which can be seen as a more effective way of bringing two opposing sides to the table.
Religious diplomacy can be distinguished from the conventional models of peace-making and conflict resolution due to its holistic approach towards addressing the socio-political maladies. In other words, the objective of faith-based diplomacy is not only instrumental in conflict resolution but also in the restoration of socio-political order in societies.
In 1998, then-US President Bill Clinton signed the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA) against popular will. It was not until 2018 when the US Department of State organised its first Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom to formally recognise the importance of this sphere of action.
The ministerial, run under the aegis of the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and the US ambassador-at-large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback, invites a prestigious audience from various walks of life to hold dialogue on religious freedom. The 2019 edition witnessed the presence of more than 1,000 civil society and religious leaders and more than 100 international delegations, who joined hands to uphold freedom of belief. The impact of the first ministerial was felt across the globe when Turkey released Pastor Andrew Brunson, who was arrested on terrorism charges in 2016.
Today, governments across the world are feeling the need for religious diplomacy to initiate dialogue. Whether it is the United Nations or countries like the US, Canada, Denmark, the UK, France, Norway, Finland, Germany, and the UAE, they are all actively working in this direction.
In February, Pope Francis paid a historic visit to the United Arab Emirates, a first in the Arabian peninsula. The Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, announced the building of the first-ever Abrahamic Family House that will include a church, a synagogue and a mosque.
The foundation of religious diplomacy rests on religion being a unifying factor across cultures. Every religion preaches harmony and this is why religion becomes a common denominator for peace across the globe.
Today, most conflicts across the world are triggered due to the misinterpretation of religion. Discord in society has a colossal impact on the economic and intellectual growth of any nation.
A ray of hope
The inauguration of the Kartarpur corridor, at a time when tensions between India and Pakistan are high due to the dilution of Article 370, is a highly welcome move. This is a unique demonstration of the strength of religious diplomacy.
It is ironical that India was partitioned in 1947 in the name of religion. Seventy-two years later, religion has opened the doors of hope and harmony between the two countries. These Sikh pilgrims have the potential to become messengers of peace between India and Pakistan. It is indeed a giant leap for these neighbours.
The seeds of amity sown today are destined to grow into a lush green tree of peace in the future. As hopeful citizens of the world, it is our responsibility to contribute to this in whatever little way we can.
Religion is not divisive; rather, it allows diversity to thrive because it teaches tolerance. Misinterpretation of religion, on the other hand, is the maleficence that destroys everything on its path and gives rise to animosity.
In this world of increasing affronts, religious diplomacy is a ray of hope. It is time that this approach is made a part of mainstream diplomacy so that it can contribute to mending the global state of affairs.
The author is an Islamic thinker and writer. Views are personal.