Pakistan opens a pathway to peace, for Sikhs

Gurdawara Darbar Sahib (Photo credit: Arman Ali/Wikimedia Commons)
Gurdawara Darbar Sahib (Photo credit: Arman Ali/Wikimedia Commons)

Here’s a bit of good news about one of the world’s toughest neighborhoods.

Indian Sikhs will now be allowed quick and easy visa-free visits to Gurdwara Darbar Sahid, the second-most sacred shrine in their religion.

The shrine is located at Kartarpur inside Pakistan, within sight of the Indian border.

Twenty-two million Sikhs live in India, and another 5 million live abroad.

Sikhs living abroad merely need a scan rather than a stamp in their passport.

This relieves Sikhs living outside of India of any evidence of their visit to Pakistan, which can be a hassle or even a risk for pilgrims in their home countries.

The spot where Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism, spent his last years, in Pakistan’s Punjab province, has a rebuilt shrine that, previously, was quite difficult, circuitous, and expensive for devotees from India to visit, given the tense relationships between the two nuclear-armed rivals. 

To much fanfare, a direct corridor from the Indian border to the shrine opened in early November in time for Guru Nanak’s 550th birthday.

Hundreds of pilgrims made the trip.

When India was partitioned in 1947, several such shrines ended up on Pakistan territory. 

The two nations were born in war, and tensions have remained high ever since, mostly over the conflict in Kashmir, which has reached the verge of nuclear war on more than one occasion.

The Sikh conflict in the Punjab, though a very separate issue from Kashmir, has also had a dark history since Indian independence. 

Sikh separatists, struggling to establish a nation they called “Khalistan,” to be carved out of India and Pakistan, battled the Indian army over the fate of the religion’s most sacred shrine, the Golden Temple in Amritsar. 

After Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards in 1984 for ordering the Amritsar temple massacre that had dislodged militant Sikh protestors, Hinduras carried out massive reprisals against Sikhs. 

There is some fear in India that access to the shrine might embolden pro-separatist sentiment among Sikhs.

There is also deep suspicion of the motives of Pakistans’ prime minister, Imran Khan.

In Pakistan there is equally deep distrust of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and of a political atmosphere charged with Hindu nationalism and anti-Pakistani sentiment.

The issue of Kashmir looms large, and pundits on both sides seem to agree that the Kartarpur corridor opening, while hugely symbolic, will not necessarily help the enemy countries reach reconciliation.

Nevertheless, there is some feeling in Pakistan that religious tourism is a way forward.

India now has the chance respond in kind, opening visa-free corridors to Sufi shrines visited by Pakistanis that the 1947 partition left inside India.

Sources: BBC News, Quartz, Dawn, Hindustan Times

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