From an unexploded bomb-shell to a corridor for peace, Guru Nanak’s mazar-samadhi will help confront the ghosts of Partition.
The shell of an unexploded bomb in a glass casing will welcome Indian Sikh pilgrims when they walk across to Kartarpur Sahib. Placed over a concrete pillar, the bomb-memorial has a plaque that claims the bomb was dropped by the Indian Air Force in 1971 to destroy the gurdwara, and that it had fallen into the holy well from which Guru Nanak used to draw water for the fields. There have been demands to remove this memorial. It will nevertheless serve to remind how big an achievement the Kartarpur corridor is – a visa-free pilgrimage across the border between two nuclear-armed countries, which have fought four wars and could any day start the fifth one.
All of Pakistan’s surviving gurdwaras, mandirs and Sufi shrines are places many Indians would like to visit. Similarly, Pakistanis want to be able to visit many shrines in India, starting with Ajmer Sharif, the most important Sufi shrine in South Asia. Currently, a pilgrimage visa agreement lets people visit a handful of shrines, if luck strikes. An increase in religious tourism between the two countries could help increase the stakes for peace.
Proposed for several decades, the Kartarpur corridor didn’t have to become a reality. There is nothing inevitable in India-Pakistan relations, except firing on the Line of Control. Ideas are proposed, debated and discussed for years, even decades, often to remain on informal pieces of paper.
Therefore, the opening of the Kartarpur corridor for Sikh pilgrims is significant for many reasons. It signals a much-needed thaw in India-Pakistan relations on the eve of India’s big election season. It is proof once again that India-Pakistan relations can’t just keep getting heated up. Both sides, from time to time, take steps to cool things down. This is essential for maintaining the status quo of a low-intensity conflict, preventing the destabilisation of the region.
After India’s snub to the new Pakistani prime minister in September, the Kartarpur corridor announcement once again shows mutual co-operation is possible. For both sides, this is a leap of faith. For Pakistan, this is an olive branch at a critical time when anti-Pakistan rhetoric is expected from the ruling BJP to drum up election enthusiasm among its supporters.
On its part, India is choosing to trust Pakistan that the corridor won’t be used to undermine India’s security. New Delhi has repeatedly accused Pakistan of not letting Indian diplomats meet visiting Sikh pilgrims and instead using the opportunity to promote anti-India Khalistani sentiments. Pakistan says the consular contact is denied for security reasons.
The Kartarpur corridor announcement also comes days after a grenade attack on a Nirankari prayer meeting in Amritsar. Chief minister Amarinder Singh has blamed the attack on Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence. Besides, the site is also close to Indian military installations in Gurdaspur and Pathankot – these places saw terrorist attacks in recent years.
By agreeing to open the corridor despite security concerns, the Modi government is also showing respect to India’s Sikhs, crucially at a time when its Punjab ally, the Shiromani Akali Dal, has to show something to the Sikh voters before the Lok Sabha elections in May.
A gurdwara comes to life
The idea of letting Sikh pilgrims travel 3-4 kilometres inside Pakistani territory has been proposed since the ‘80s. Built near the spot where Guru Nanak died in 1539, the gurdwara was a victim of neglect for several decades after Partition.
As an international border prevented Sikhs from accessing it, the shrine became a spot for smugglers and drug addicts, according to Pakistani writer Haroon Khalid, author of Walking with Nanak. In these years, Muslim followers of Guru Nanak continued to maintain the shrine’s sanctity by praying there.
With the rise in demands by Sikhs to access the shrine, the Pakistani government renovated it in 1995. Pakistan also started giving Sikh pilgrims visas to the shrine in 2005. Local Muslims and the Pakistani Rangers help organise a langar at Kartarpur. When the langar was first started, local Muslims were hesitant to eat there, but now many do.
Pakistan took a major step by giving Pakistani Sikhs autonomy to run their gurdwaras with the formation of the Pakistan Sikh Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee in 1999. Currently, Sikhs with Indian passports are allowed to visit only 20 of Pakistan’s 175 gurdwaras. Sikh pilgrims are given visas on religious occasions four times a year, but for the rest 361 days, even these 20 gurdwaras look deserted. With Indian Sikh pilgrims allowed to walk across to Kartarpur Sahib 365 days a year, the shrine will come to life as if Partition never happened.
Guru Nanak as a peace ambassador
There can’t be a better metaphor for India-Pakistan peace than the Kartarpur corridor. It is an act of faith by both countries, bowing to centuries of faith over a few decades of conflict, respecting religious rights over the sanctity of borders.
Guru Nanak spent his life preaching collective respect for humanity over caste and religion divide. If Guru Nanak was alive today, he would have added India-Pakistan peace as one of his causes. Crossing an international border without visa or passport, Sikh pilgrims will help create a symbolic outpost for India-Pakistan peace. The corridor will show that it is possible to respect each other and still be different countries, put behind the history of Partition without agreeing with each other’s version of it. It will show people in India how Pakistan is willing to respect other faiths despite being an Islamic republic.
When Guru Nanak died at Kartarpur, Hindus and Muslims fought over his last rites. Legend has it that Muslims felt he should be buried, while Hindus wanted to cremate his body. Nanak appeared as an old man, saying they should both leave flowers over his body. Whichever set of flowers was still fresh the next morning would decide whether he should be cremated or buried.
Next morning the body had disappeared, but both sets of flowers were still there. The Muslims buried theirs at a site now known as Mazar Sahib, and the Hindus cremated theirs at the site, which is now a Samadhi. The story embodies what India and Pakistan need: out-of-the-box thinking, letting both sides win, and resolving differences with mutual respect. What could be a better metaphor for Indian-Pakistan peace than the Samadhi-Mazar-Gurdwara of Baba Guru Nanak Dev-ji?
“Khule Darshan Deedar”
Sikhs must be the only people whose daily prayers include a visa request – “khule darshan deedar” or unrestricted access to gurdwaras is part of the Sikh Ardas. For the Sikh pilgrims who have been watching the Kartarpur Sahib gurdwara with binoculars over elephant grass, their prayers have been answered.
There’s no dearth of families and faiths waiting for their prayers to be answered, to be allowed to visit a grave, a shrine or a dying aunt across the border. The Kartarpur corridor will make many Indians and Pakistanis pray harder because it is proof that prayers do get answered.