Kartarpur – A corridor towards interfaith harmony

Kartarpur, a word that has reverberated enough times in the last year that it has left a lasting mark on people’s memories. It is the final resting abode of the first guru and founder of Sikhism, Baba Guru Nanak. Born in Nankana Sahib also located in Pakistan’s Punjab, Guru Nanak traveled carrying his message before deciding to settle on the right bank of River Ravi. Following his death, the inhabitants and followers of the area who deeply respected him transcending the religious identities built a mausoleum for the founder of Sikhism. The changing course of River Ravi, however, forced Guru Nanak’s son to save the urn containing Guru Nanak’s ashes and rebury it on the left bank of River Ravi, currently located in Gurdaspur of Indian Punjab. The Radcliffe line that separates the two countries helping Muslims achieve their destiny of a separate homeland wasn’t a very positive development for Sikhs in the area. They were deprived of visiting (darshan) the last home of their Guru due to immigration problems owing to the truculent nature of relations between both the countries.

Owing to the long-standing demand of Sikhs around the world, the first positive move was made when the Indian Prime Minister visited Pakistan in 1999 and an unspoken, unsigned Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) was established. However, the air of goodwill waned soon as Pakistan and India locked horns in a major escalation on the border. The Prime Minister of Pakistan, Imran Khan then unilaterally decided to open the Kartarpur corridor in September 2018 immediately after assuming power allowing devotees to visit without a visa. The pace at which the idea was realized in less than a year is nothing short of a miracle considering the rocky relations between both the countries. Imran Khan went a step ahead in his gesture of goodwill when he retracted the requirement for a passport and advanced 10 days booking for visiting Kartarpur. He also waived the fee of 20$ on the day of inauguration and 550th birthday of Guru Nanak and his government issuing a commemorative coin.

The Gurdwara erect in a typical Sikh architecture is 4.7 kilometers inside Pakistan. The corridor as it stands today consists of a massive border terminal that will have 80 immigration terminals for registration, medical and transportation facilities for the pilgrims just across the zero point from the Indian side. As the pilgrims board the available conveyance, they will cross a newly constructed bridge on top of River Ravi and move into the Kartarpur Complex. The expanded complex will have various facilities for pilgrims including refreshment centers and separate parking lots for devotees arriving from India and Pakistan. Plans include the construction of accommodating services for pilgrims who would want to stay for a longer period. Currently, the devotees can only arrive in the morning and leave in the evening due to a lack of hotels. The hospitality services are also crucial because India has only allowed its citizens to visit Kartarpur only once a year so the visitors would want to make the most of it.

Interfaith harmony is one of the bedrocks of a democratic country. While Pakistan faces a lot of heat owing to some isolated incidents, the country overall has had a good level of religious tolerance. However, owing to changing geostrategic dynamics in the region for the last many decades, the world has been deprived of this knowledge about Pakistan. Imran Khan has taken it upon himself to change the international narrative of the countries ever since he assumed his office. Opening the Kartarpur corridor is one of the many initiatives that will help the world understand Pakistan differently from the lens of terrorism that has clouded the world view of Pakistan. Imran Khan intimated his noble intentions behind the project when he said, “If Mecca and Medina were 4KM away and Muslims couldn’t visit, how would they feel? This is the same feeling Sikhs have for Kartarpur.”

Religious tourism is a source of income for many countries, most notably Saudi Arabia. With a population of 27 million people all around the world, there are more than half a million Sikhs in Canada alone with a good representation in parliament after 2019 Canadian elections. To accommodate such a community to offer their religious duties is mutually beneficial for both Pakistan and the Sikhs. 20$ is a meager fee but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Pakistan has made arrangements for managing at least 5000 pilgrims a day. The hospitality business in the area can get a huge push if Pakistan manages to tap this religious tourism opportunity further. Taking an example of India’s medical tourism would be pertinent as not only does it help in the revenue generation of the country but also manifests a soft image and power along with helping the visiting patients.

There are some concerns inside India though that Pakistan is plotting to win over Sikhs. Indian journalist Suhasini Haidar was worried about the Kartarpur corridor dividing India on religious lines. Knowing their hostility against Pakistan, the Government of India is also trapped in a dilemma. They didn’t expect Pakistan to act so swiftly and if they now back-off from the initiative, they will face massive agitation from the Sikh community and international insult. Apprehensions of a repeat of the 1980s Khalistan movement and the eventual operation inside golden temple of Sikhs to root out the freedom fighters run deep inside the government machinery of BJP. This trepidation of India is also fanned when former critics of Imran Khan from the Sikh community turn into his admirers after they come to know about the corridor, the latest example being Indian ex-cricketer Harbhajan Singh. Indian media citing some unsourced intelligence reports also tried to propagate that there are terror camps in the district where Kartarpur is located. The state of delirium that has ensued since February this year is sometimes laughable and sometimes worrisome for their mental health. However, such fears have no logical grounds and are only a fragment of the imagination of Indian media and government.

The ruling government has been able to tout the corridor as a success in this time of crisis. However, despite the positivity surrounding the initiative, the opposition couldn’t help but take a jibe at it as Bilawal Bhutto Zardari tried to downplay it in the backdrop of Kashmir situation. It will wise for all the politicians across the spectrum to not use such positive initiatives for political gains as they transcend beyond politics. Pakistan will be able to earn the dividends of a softer international image better if such initiatives are not made controversial. Anyone who does so might have to reflect upon their allegiance for Pakistan.

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