Why Guru Nanak Is Important to Both India and Pakistan

#Video: On Gurupurab, Watch Oxford Uni Prof Dr Pritam Singh explain the importance of Guru Nanak for India-Pakistan.

6 min read

Video Production Assistance: Anubhav Mishra
Video Editor: Purnendu Pritam

(This video and article were originally published on 09.11.19 and has been republished in light of Guru Nanak’s 551th birth anniversary.)

Over 70 years on, India’s demand for the Kartarpur Corridor, which connects two historically important gurudwaras on either side of the Indo-Pak border – Dera Baba Nanak Gurudwara in Gurdaspur district in India and Darbar Sahib Gurudwara in Narowal district in Pakistan – was finally fulfilled in 2019. But, has this gesture by Pakistan improved bilateral ties between the two neighbours?

And what did the event, which coincided with the 550th birth anniversary of Guru Nanak in 2019, mean for Sikhs across the world?

The Quint’s Indira Basu caught up with Oxford University professor and Punjab expert, Dr Pritam Singh, before the inauguration of the Kartarpur corridor.

Below are excerpts from the interview:

“The (Pakistan’s) motive behind this (Kartarpur Corridor initiative) is generally respect for Guru Nanak and seeking this opportunity (of his 550th birth anniversary). And the step which Imran Khan has taken, he knows that even in Pakistan it will make him popular. Not because he wanted to please Indians or Sikhs, or his friend Navjot Sidhu. He knew that he’ll be popular in Pakistan also.”
Dr Pritam Singh, Visiting Professor, University of Oxford

What is the importance of Kartarpur Sahib in the life and teachings of Guru Nanak?

Kartarpur Sahib is the last part of Guru Nanak’s life. People divide Guru Nanak’s life into three parts: his early childhood, and his youth, and then the second stage is when he went on long travels which are called ‘udasiyan’, and the last stage is Kartarpur where he settled and gave a practical demonstration about his ideas. About… you know, in Punjabi or Hindi we say ‘Kaam karo, vand chhakko, naam jappo.’ ‘Kaam karo’ means that you should work, you should do labouring activities, and ‘vand chhakko’ means whatever you produce, it should be shared, and ‘naam jappo’ is obviously taking the name of God, and meditation and reflection on what you’re doing, which he made as... kind of… the three principles of his life which are interpreted as three principles of his life and teachings. So, Kartarpur is a practical demonstration of Guru Nanak’s philosophy.

With Kartarpur manifesting during Modi’s regime, is it likely to be perceived as the fruit of Modi government’s diplomatic efforts, and therefore, influence the Sikh vote bank?

It was very difficult for the Indian government, once the initiative had been taken by Pakistan, to say ‘we don’t want to do anything’. So they were caught into this. That’s one dimension. And one has to be frank about this and not hide under any idea. On its own, the Indian government may not have taken such a proactive stand. Secondly, this is also true, that BJP is actively trying to woo the Sikhs, and for one main reason –actually, two main reasons. One, they know internationally they have been tarnished as ‘hitting out’ at Muslims and, to a lesser extent, Christians. And so it is seen as a Hindu nationalist government. And Sikhs are the main minority community which have not been hit under the BJP government. And the second reason is that RSS views Sikhs differently from Muslims, Christians and Parsis. The RSS’ view is that Sikhs, Buddhists, and Jains, though they are different religions, they are part of the Hindu pantheon.


Could you explain why perhaps the corridor couldn’t be realised even during Indira Gandhi, and later, Vajpayee’s regimes?

Well, it is one of those questions in history, you know, ‘If it could be done, when it could be done’. I mean it’s possible it could’ve been done. Nothing so strange about it. The only thing is that the momentum has been built up by the 550th birth anniversary (of Nanak). Before that,1969 was the 500th birth anniversary which was a very big event, no doubt about it. But I think it was too close to Partition in a way, only about 20 years, and people didn’t think about it. So there is another 50 years, and there is a kind of distance from that, and people looking to the future. And also the fact that Imran Khan came into power, who’s a personal friend of Navjot Singh Sidhu, (and) who’s a much more open-minded person; he’s (Imran) much more multi-cultural – he took the initiative.

Is the corridor likely to facilitate stronger India-Pakistan relations?

I think it’s a very important event. I mean, in hindsight we will realise the importance. I do not know in the global history of international relations between different countries, anything being done like that. That a country builds a corridor to allow the citizens of another country to use that corridor to access some place. There may be (other countries like this) but it hasn’t come to my knowledge. And given the fraught relationship between India and Pakistan over these years, it is a remarkable thing. The practical experience of people walking on that land... they are bound to feel that ‘my God, you know, this is a common land, and common land means we have a common heritage.’


What does Pakistan seek to gain from it? And is Imran Khan likely to face pushback from other actors in Pakistan State?

Well, I think there are some very, very kind of hardcore fundamentalists who probably do not view (positively) Imran Khan’s gestures or initiative on Kartarpur. But by and large, he (Imran) has got support on this. It will lead to increase in tourism and earnings (for Pakistan). And the step which Imran Khan has taken, he knows that even in Pakistan it will make him popular. Not because he wanted to please Indians or Sikhs, or his friend Navjot Sidhu. He knew that he’ll be popular in Pakistan also.

Can you shed light on the controversy over Guru Nanak’s burial and cremation in Kartarpur – and the significance of the land where they built the gurudwara?

Well, the controversy is, and this is one of the parts of ‘myth-making’ that one can’t really substantiate, because Muslims also respected Guru Nanak a lot. People in India don’t know how Guru Nanak is revered in Pakistan. I have been to Pakistan twice and I was myself amazed by the reverence Guru Nanak has among the ordinary people. If you allow me, I’ll give you little example of that. When I went to see Nankana Sahib Gurudwara, the driver who had taken me there, he also went with me, and he prayed in the gurudwara. And when we came out, he spoke to me in Punjabi. I’ll tell you in a little Hindi-Urdu mixture. Translated: He said “Sahib, you have done a great thing by bringing me here. I am very grateful to you.” To this I said, “I should be grateful to you, that you brought me here.” The driver said, “No, let me tell you that my village is about 20-25 miles from here, and my mother used to say, ‘I have to go pay my respects at Nankana Sahib, you take me.’ Then, I couldn’t take her. When she was on her deathbed, she told me, ‘Now that I am about to go… you didn’t take me, but you must once to pay your respects.’ But I still didn’t manage to visit the shrine. Today, because of you, my mother’s wish has been fulfilled. My heart is content.” I was amazed to see the extent of Guru Nanak’s influence upon common people. And many people think he (Guru Nanak) is one of the Hindu avatars of Vishnu. And so, when he (Nanak) died, there was a controversy, whether he should be cremated or buried. And Muslims claimed he’s their guru, and then the story goes that the chaddar was thrown onto his body and the next day, when the chaddar was lifted up, there were only flowers. The body had ‘flown away’. So then they (Hindus & Muslims) divided the flowers equally. The Muslims buried the flowers, and the Hindus cremated the flowers. But it’s one of those stories. I think there’s a similar story about Sant Kabir. What it illustrates is that Guru Nanak was commonly accepted by the entire population of Punjab as a great spiritual thinker.


Guru Nanak is known to have broken religious barriers during his travels. Could you expand on this, and perhaps quote Nanak?

One of his (Nanak’s) most popular lines is ‘Sabe sanjhi vaal sadaayen koi na dise bara jio’, which means that everyone is a part of this universe, no one is strange to us. And similarly, there are several other lines which show his universal vision.

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