Saturday October 16, 2021

Kartarpur's healing touch

November 10, 2019

“You are the protector of wisdom. Almighty Lord! Our helper and protector ever, restore to us the right and privilege of unhindered and free service and access to Nankana Sahib and other centres of Sikh religion from which we have been separated.”

Ardas, the daily Sikh prayer, is a continually changing devotional text, carrying the feelings of generations of the Sikhs within its lines. Alongside other wishes and desires, the 400-word long prayer expresses the longing to access the sacred places from where the community has been separated.

It appears that the divine has responded to the prayers made by millions of Sikh over three generations. While Sikhs have every reason to feel ecstatic and blessed, the opening of the Kartarpur Corridor is a momentous occasion for the whole region. This occasion can become a milestone for peace and may even set new international trends for granting people of faith a free access their sacred spaces.

Sacred spaces are external manifestations of the inner divine. Separation from a sacred place can be tormenting for a person of faith. We know how the early Muslim community was pained due to their separation from Mecca. Every Muslim has a longing to visit their holy places and from the very beginning of Islam, Muslims have been performing Hajj even in the toughest of circumstances. Seder, one of the most important rituals of the Jewish community ends with the line “next year in Jerusalem”.

Sikhs were separated from their sacred spaces in traumatic circumstances. Had their leaders listened to Jinnah and not aligned with Congress at that time, Punjab would not have been divided and Pakistan would be a very different country today. But Punjab did divide and in very tragic circumstances.

By providing millions of Sikhs visa-free access to one of their holiest sites, Pakistan has done a favour to itself as well. Sikhs are a community linked to this land through an umbilical cord of spirituality. Though mostly citizens of a different country, they are the sons and daughters of the valley of the Indus. Their exodus from this land was never a part of the scheme of Partition.

The Sikh places of pilgrimage are important to the community as some of the most sacred places on earth, but they are equally valuable to us as our precious heritage. They are linked to the sages and seers who belonged to this land. They are linked to our history and evolution of civilization, social thought and wisdom on this land. It is a heritage that Pakistan can be rightfully proud of.

The 550th anniversary of the birth of Guru Nanak is not only a religious event for Sikhs but a national event for Pakistan as well. It was befitting that Pakistan issued commemorative coins and stamps and took steps to establish the Guru Nanak University in Nankana Sahib.

Incidentally, the Kartarpur Corridor opened on Iqbal's birthday. In his poem on Nanak, Iqbal calls him a ‘mard-e-kamil’ (a perfect man) who raised India from slumber.

And on Nov 9, the Indian Supreme Court gave a verdict handing the site of the demolished historic Babri Masjid to Hindu zealots. It was a day that showed that religion is a double-edged sword. While religion is a great force for healing and transformation, the devil also lurks in its shadow.

Ghastly crimes are committed in the name of religion when it is seen merely as a source of identity, denuded from its ethical and spiritual message. One of my early carers was a woman who had lost her five children and all of her family in East Punjab. In fact, she had seen her children, including an infant, being butchered in front of her eyes. She lost her sanity and spent the rest of her life caring for children in our village, where she had ended up after migration. Many Sikhs on the other side of the border may have their own tragic accounts to share.

Sacred spaces are shared human assets. They are the source of spirituality, peace and tranquility – things our world needs more than ever. Pilgrimage to sacred places is a process of spiritual and psychological cleansing that carries the promise of rebirth, giving the faithful a chance of a new beginning in life. No one should be denied this opportunity of transformation.

Pakistan is already making arrangements for Hindu pilgrims to visit their sacred places in Pakistan. Pakistan should also engage with India for ensuring unhindered access for Pakistani Hindus and Sikhs to sacred places in India. India should also allow Pakistani pilgrims to visit Muslim shrines in India.

Finally, I have lobbied for some time for another gesture of goodwill. Both India and Pakistan have maintained a harsh visa regime for each other’s citizens. The people who were born on this land and migrated as children to India are a dying generation. Almost all of them carry a burning desire to visit their places of birth one last time. Putting them in a special category, Pakistan should grant the children of this land the facility of a one-time visa to visit the places of their birth and, in addition, a city of their choice. For these senior citizens, this land is no less than a sacred space.

On Kartarpur, the government has said and done the right things. It has made a decision that is based on wisdom and humanity. The opening of the Kartarpur Corridor is one of the most outstanding achievements of a government in recent times. Imran Khan's attitude on this issue has been statesmanlike and humane. The fact that Pakistan has taken this step almost unilaterally, in the absence of any dialogue or prospects of a thaw in bilateral relations, makes it even more profound and valuable. By opening the Kartarpur corridor, Pakistan's government has made the whole nation proud. It is a healing touch with far-reaching consequences.

The writer is an anthropologist and development professional.

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