OPINION
KARTARPUR SAHIB: A CLARION CALL FOR PEACE IN AN AGE OF CYNICISM
We need to ask what is the worst that can happen?
- AMANDEEP SANDHU
We need to ask what is the worst that can happen?



KEEPING HIS PROMISE, Pakistan premier Imran Khan today performed the ground breaking ceremony for the proposed Kartarpur Sahib corridor. On Monday, Indian Vice President Venkaiah Naidu and east Panjab chief minister Amarinder Singh laid the foundation stone at the Indian side at Dera Baba Nanak, 4 kilometers from the Gurdwara where Guru Nanak spent the last 17 years of his life. The fruition of the project by next November, the 550th anniversary of Guru Nanak, could mark a sea change in relations between arch rivals India and Pakistan. It could set a precedent for the role religion can play to bring peace in south Asia. 

Perhaps the most common critique of all religions is Karl Marx's phrase: opiate of the masses. The fact is that this phrase follows a longer sentence in which Marx describes the value of religion in human society. 'Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions.' 

Since Marx’s utterance, while bashing religion, we often forget the value of religion and pick only its negative consequences. There are good reasons for it. There are umpteen examples of how communalism spreads, how politicians use religion to divide society, how competitive one-upmanship leads to violence, pogroms, riots and sectarianism. The Partition of India and Pakistan is considered the greatest exile in human history. It caused 1 million deaths and 14 million displacements.Ordinary people turned looters and plunderers. Even neighbours turned against each other - all in the name of religion. 

For the Hindu and Muslim populations the Partition caused loss of a sense of belonging to their birth and natural environments and devastated their economies. For the Sikhs, who opposed Partition, in addition to loss of belonging, the event also caused separation from some of their most significant religious places, including the place of birth and passing away of their founder Guru Nanak. The Sikhs prayers include the Ardas performed in the presence of the Granth Sahib or for various small and big ceremonies. The Ardas has three parts. The first and third part are fixed but the second part can be changed to suit the occasion. After 1947, the Sikhs included the following text in the second part of their Ardas:

Sri Nankana Sahib te hor Gurdwarean, Gurdhaama 
jinhan ton Panth nu vichorea gea hai de
khulle darshan didar te seva sambhal da dan 
Khalsa jee nu bakhsho. 

Restore to the (Sikh) Panth, 
the access and privilege of service 
at Sri Nankana Sahib and other centres of religion,  
from which we have been separated.

For 71 years now, in spite of how New Delhi and Islamabad define the relationship between India and Pakistan, the Sikhs have been making the prayer to unite with their Gurdwaras. The desire to go to Kartarpur Sahib has been a sigh of the people of the Indus Valley Civilization, a plea for peace in a sub-continent divided by the one of the most militarized borders, a soulful cry not only of the Sikhs but also of around 12 crore people of different sects, affiliations, who believe in the name of Nanak. 
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We need to ask what is the worst that can happen? At worst we will return to where are right now. We are already there, should we stay locked in status quo or should we not venture?
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The developments this week seemed impossible just three months ago when Panjab minister Navjot Singh Sidhu visited Pakistan and hugged their Army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa who had proposed the corridor. The nationalist television studios, the ruling right wing Bhartiya Janata Party, called him a traitor. Sidhu was abused and mocked.
 
Today the same Indian government is supporting the corridor. The BJP, which has made ‘hate Pakistan’ its major agenda, would have never agreed for such a project but was checkmated by Pakistan and came in to glorify its beleaguered alliance partner Shiromani Akali Dal. This was amply clear from the Indian ceremony where the foundation stone became a billboard for advertisements of the SAD leadership who have had little to do with the corridor, at least in recent times and were the first to blame Sidhu for hobnobbing with Pakistan.

Guru Nanak says, 

Jo To Prem Khelan Ka Chaao/Sir Dhar Tali Gali Meri Aao

If you yearn to play love/enter with your head on your palm.

It is that moment for India and Pakistan. The call is whether we - both nations - want to play love, in this context with our neighbour. 
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The BJP, which has made ‘hate Pakistan’ its major agenda, would have never agreed for such a project but was checkmated by Pakistan and came in to glorify its beleaguered alliance partner Shiromani Akali Dal.
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To fall apart, the proposal just needs:

  • Activities by Sikh organizations such as Sikhs For Justice and Khalistan Liberation Force who seek to further the Khalistan agenda. They find little resonance in today’s Panjab but could lead to the proposal being shelved for security reasons.
  • Plants by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence to be apprehended by Indian security.
  • The scenario post 2019 elections, when the project is still mid-way, hangs as a Damocles sword on the corridor.
  • The Panjab CM mentioned travel will be Visa Free.The travel will be restricted to the Gurdwara but will be free. It needs to be implemented to be believed.

How fragile even peace talks are in the context is evident from the fact that as soon as the ground breaking ceremony was over the Indian media picked up the case of Navjot Singh Sidhu’s photograph with alleged Khalistan activist Gopal Singh Chawla. The fact is in other photographs both union ministers Hardeep Singh Puri and Harsimrat Kaur Badal, and Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee head Gobind Singh Longowalare also seen with the same man. Yet, jingoistic Indian media won’t dwell upon that. 

The cynical propaganda against the corridor shows how far the national narrative is from both east and west Panjab whose people share language, culture, deep bonds and have always aspired for peace. That is why the discourse does not get a simple fact: when two Panjabis meet, they hug as a way of greeting each other. It does not get it that former cricket stalwarts Imran Khan and Navjot Sidhu, who excelled on the field, now seek to re-write history. 

In this context, we need to focus on two statements by Imran Khan in his speech. He said and I paraphrase, for long Pakistan is known to have two parallel power structures: the elected government and the Army. This time the political leadership and the Army stand together on this issue. This is significant as far as the ISI sponsored source of terrorism in India is concerned because the Pakistan government is willing to be accountable and wants to shed its earlier image. The second statement is even more significant. Imran Khan said, both India and Pakistan are nuclear powered nations. Any misadventure will be either extreme foolishness or madness. It will leave no winners or losers, it will devastate us all. Peace is our only option,making this corridor is a step towards that.

At the same time, it is important to maintain that the management of the Kartarpur Sahib Gurdwara stays with Pakistan’s Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee and there should be no claim on it by the now Parkash Singh Badal controlled SGPC. The Kartarpur Sahib Gurdwara was freely accessible until the 1960s.  In 1974, India and Pakistan signed a Protocol on Visits to Religious Shrines to facilitate the granting of visas to pilgrims, but the draconian visa regime followed by both countries has kept the religious sites out of bounds for most pilgrims. In early 2000s, when Atal Bihari Vajpayee was in power,Pakistan made an attempt to open access. The efforts failed. The SAD was an alliance partner with the BJP and in power, the SGPC was in control. One of the reasons is not talked about much but is clear when you look at how SGPC functions: it won’t be able to put their hands on the Guru ki Golak, the offerings of the people at the Gurdwara directly associated with Guru Nanak. 

If this project succeeds, it may lead to access to other 194 Gurdwaras included in the Sikh Ardas. It may lead to better trade and cultural ties between the two Panjab’s and nations. Most of all, it would lead to demilitarization of two poverty stricken nations and better spending on education, health care and employment. Certainly those are what people of both nations seek from their governments. 

Instead of tilting at windmills, we need to acknowledge that a step such as this finally boils down to faith of those who know the cultural context. In this case a huge population that believes in Guru Nanak. We need to ask what is the worst that can happen? At worst we will return to where are right now. We are already there, should we stay locked in status quo or should we not venture?

It is a razor’s edge. As we say in Panjab: Rabb Rakha!  

   
Amandeep Sandhu is working on a book on Panjab.



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