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Opinion

Fifth column

September 15, 2018

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The Kartarpur corridor

Navjot Singh Sidhu, former Indian cricketer-turned-comedian-turned-politician, is on a serious business of fostering bonhomie between India and Pakistan – an ambitious path that is burdened with the potholes of repugnant memories, ossified rivalries, unhealthy engagements, and militant narratives of annihilation and extermination.

First, Sidhu broke India’s manufactured national obsession of forbidding any constructive engagement with Pakistan by not only attending Prime Minister Imran Khan’s inauguration, but also meeting freely with the country’s military leadership and media, unleashing sound bites of love and compassion, much to the mortification of belligerent elements back home. This earned him wide-scale rebuke and scorn, even from his own Congress Party, and death threats from extremist Hindu nationalist groups who fear any prospects of peace as it can almost arrest their power of constructing nightmares to frighten gullible voters to prolong their rule.

Notwithstanding the accusations of being an enemy agent amid a barrage of frightening public threats and the announcement of prize money on his head, the ever-smiling sardarji remains determined to invest his energies in pursuing reconciliation. This is also inflaming the current loathsome political architecture in India, its auxiliaries in the media, and their calculus for perpetuating hate as a weapon of choice to produce a gainful harvest in the form of electoral victories.

The efforts towards reconciliation are also being stonewalled by a fossilised bureaucratic architecture shaped by the colonial thinking of yore that was deliberately shaped to denigrate and disparage common historical legacies to diminish their power in uniting and fostering mutual humanitarian bonds.

Sidhu’s recent visit to Pakistan has reignited the longstanding demand of Sikhs to open a pilgrimage corridor between Kartarpur Sahib in Narowal, Pakistan and Dera Baba Nanak in Gurdaspur – an important settlement in Sikh history that contains three renowned gurdwaras. Kartarpur Sahib is also an equally important monument and one of the most famous and historic gurdwaras. It is the third oldest place of worship that was built by Guru Nanak Dev Ji, the founder of the Sikh faith.

Baba Guru Nanak founded a commune of his followers in Kartarpur, a name also coined by Nanak. The current gurdwara was built on the site where Baba Guru Nanak passed away, on September 22, 1539. The two sites – Dera Baba Nanak and Kartarpur Sahib – are barely separated by six kilometres but walled by an international border between India and Pakistan that is also toughened by a toxic rhetoric, the securitisation of people and places, and a total breakdown in mutual trust.

Thankfully, Gurdwara Darbar Sahib Kartarpur is visible to Sikh pilgrims from Dera Baba Nanak on the Indian side as Pakistani authorities usually prune the shrubbery to clear the field of view for the devotees. The visitors to Dera Baba Nanak are usually able to perform darshan from the cupolas of the gurdwaras or the mounds in the locality.

In a press conference last week, Sidhu claimed that Pakistan has decided to allow access to the Kartarpur corridor, a claim that was earlier supported by Minister for Information Fawad Chaudhry. The recent reports sound quite positive as they suggest that Sikh pilgrims will enjoy “visa-free direct access” to the gurdwara. An Indian news source that quoted Pakistani authorities claimed that some forward movement is expected soon around the matter. This would be a terrific gift for Sikhs all around the world as they are preparing to celebrate the 550th birth anniversary of Guru Nanak Dev Ji next year.

The unfettered access to the holy place would also be a befitting tribute to Nanak, who rose to break the stranglehold of the oppressive system of socio-religious hierarchies in medieval Punjab and united people across various tyrannical divisions. “Pakistan will soon open the border at Kartarpur … [and] … a road will be constructed for pilgrims,” Chaudhry maintained.

This would be a befitting tribute to the composite past of Punjab that could help create a better understanding between both countries. Luckily, I have travelled frequently on both sides of Punjab and interacted with a wide section of society – from intellectuals and politicians to people of all hues and persuasions. There is overwhelming warmth for a lay traveller in Punjab and between Punjabis from the two sides with an unceasing yearning to know more about the other across the frontier.

During my frequent trips from Pakistan to India and vice versa, people from both Punjabs have nothing but immense love for their kindred on the other side. It is quite intriguing that while the two Punjabs bore most of the brunt of Partition, including its murder and bloody mayhem, the legacy of rancour and hatred that formed in its wake is least discernible among Punjabis.

Sadly, it is mainly the rest of North India and a few little pockets within Pakistan that are exhibiting a behaviour that is lavishly informed by the gore and death of yesteryears, and the wars of the past with a carefree bidding for future hostilities. It is quite depressing, to say the least, that the creation of India and Pakistan led to the obliteration of a common heritage and history of freedom against colonialism as the perpetuating Kashmir conflict and the wars that connect it have sharpened the cleavages and created an unbridgeable binary out of their respective national goals of development and progress.

Imran Khan’s new government has started on a very positive note in its efforts to foster a friendly environment in order to create long-term accommodation with all neighbours. His first speech after winning the elections offers hope as he displayed a sound understanding of the problems facing Pakistan and their regional dimensions – mainly peace with India and peace in Afghanistan.

The continued rivalry between India and Pakistan remains one of the biggest challenges for South Asia – a tragedy that has blighted progress and equitable development in the whole region. The enmity between both countries has spilled beyond their borders and destroyed many chances for meaningful sociopolitical development as well as commercial linkages that would have benefitted everybody within the Saarc region.

The opening of the Kartarpur corridor for Sikh pilgrims would be a small step towards reconciliation, and foster shared cultural and historical linkages. In the future, a similar arrangement could be extended towards Hindu pilgrims who want to visit the Katas Raj Temples or similar monuments of historic and spiritual value.

Twitter: @murtaza_shibli

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