Kartarpur Corridor: Why Some Sikhs May Want to Return to Pakistan

Desire to return (to their pre-Partition home) is not unique to Sikhs. Even some Hindus in Pakistan want to return.

Published26 Nov 2019, 08:41 PM IST
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6 min read

“Sardarji, kya haal hai? Chai piyoge? Kuchh roti khaoge? Punjab tuhāḍā ghar hai.”

In Punjab, the bond between a host and his guest is distinguished by a sense of sacred duty. Whatever one’s social status, one’s home is a resource to be shared with devotion. In recent weeks, Sikhs from across the world have been welcomed as revered guests of Pakistan to celebrate the 550th birth anniversary of Guru Nanak Dev. Pilgrimage is both a personal and a political affair. The Kartarpur corridor, connecting pilgrims in India to Gurdwara Darbar Sahib in Pakistan, is an historic achievement, but it gives way to a nagging question: can this symbol of unity truly heal the wounds of Partition?

Kartarpur Corridor: An Olive Branch

“Hum ko khushi miltee hai jab main tuhānū dēkhadā hāṁ”

The happiness displayed by Pakistanis at the sight of visiting Sikhs speaks to a nostalgia for an imagined past of cosmopolitan affection. It was as if we were returning home. From Islamabad to Lahore, the request for photographs amongst all age groups was endless. Working-class Pakistanis, from shopkeepers to police officers, were most enthusiastic in their expressions of Punjabi brotherhood. Excited smiles crept upon the faces of onlookers at the sight of turbans and the sound of Punjabi language: “Tuhāḍī'āṁ pagāṁ tuhāḍā shahan hai”.

The endearing curiosity of locals extended to the knowledge of Baba Guru Nanak himself.

For instance, an elderly gentleman in Lahore – hailing originally from Amritsar – poetically remarked, “Na tera khuda koi aur hai// na mera khuda koi aur hai // yeh jo raste hain juda juda yeh moamla koi aur hai.”

Kartarpur has emerged as an idiom of joyous obligation in Pakistan’s national conversation. Popular excitement surrounding the Corridor is so high that it feels as though the nation has sworn an oath of fealty to another. Visual imagery plays a central role in exhibiting this commitment. Welcome posters adorn the roads leading to Sikh holy cities. The faces of Prime Minister Imran Khan and Punjabi politicians feature most frequently, giving the impression that Sikh yatris are the recipients of elite favour. The location of the posters is undoubtedly calculated with precision. For instance, visuals inside Gurdwara Janam Asthan at the birthplace of Guru Nanak (Nankana Sahib) foreground the determination of the Pakistani state to present an image of their country as a haven for minorities’ expression.

Gurdwara Choa Sahib, with a local elder
Gurdwara Choa Sahib, with a local elder
(Photo: Sapan Maini-Thompson)

Pakistan’s Gurdwara’s Aren’t Exclusive to Sikhs

More controversially, some walls are embellished with depictions of the Sikh militant leader Jarnail Singh Bhindrawale. This is presumably to express solidarity with Indian Punjab’s historic afflictions. Nevertheless, it might also reflect an ulterior geopolitical motive on the part of the Pakistani establishment. Compounding this official discourse, moreover, is the invocation of Kartarpur as a vernacular, catch-all reference to Sikh interests. Locals were acutely aware of the Prime Minister’s initiative and cricketing friendships: “Imran Sahib nē vadhī'ā kama kītā, nahīṁ? Sidhu bohut changa bandha hai!”

The project has been successfully personalised.

Pakistan’s gurdwaras, however, are not exclusive to Sikhs.

Nanakpanthi Hindus from Sindh have a tremendous, perhaps dominant, presence inside the temples, yet they are conspicuously absent in the popular narrative. Indeed, when speaking to locals, one suspects the strident distinction drawn between Sikh and Hindu pilgrims might stem from divergent political perceptions of the respective communities. This is despite the material reality of co-dependence. The Hindu population in Sindh assiduously organises itself to perform gurdwara seva across the Punjab. In return, the gurdwaras provide refuge to impoverished Sindhis, operating as sanctuaries of fraternity. This symbiosis is artistically reflected in the depiction of Hindu deities on murals at the gurdwara of Guru Arjan’s shaheedi in Lahore.

Imran Khan’s ‘Gateway to Peace’.
Imran Khan’s ‘Gateway to Peace’.
(Photo: Sapan Maini-Thompson)

Plight of Pakistan’s Sikhs

Stepping outside Gurdwara Panja Sahib in Hassan Abdal, it dawned upon me that Pakistan’s gurdwaras are disparate islands of autonomy embedded within a Muslim landscape. Upon leaving the premise of the shrine, one is immediately submerged in the resounding echoes of the azaan, and the voices of local children singing hymns in celebration of Eid ul Milad Un Nabi.

This juxtaposition of faith is a defining feature of the Pakistani Sikh experience.

According to the Granthi, Gulbir Singh, there are 152 Sikh families living in the city today. The town’s demographic skew, however, illustrates the community’s social vulnerability. For this reason, the director of the Allied Schools Initiative, Taher Durrani, informed me about how his private school network has made inclusive amendments to its religious curriculum. His schools now educate a representative sum of Sikh, Hindu and Christian children.

Nonetheless, the majority of Pakistan’s Sikhs remain an enclosed and under-educated community in distant Peshawar.
Gurdwara Panja Sahib.
Gurdwara Panja Sahib.
(Photo: Sapan Maini-Thompson)

Value of Historical Preservation

The endurance of Pakistan’s Sikh community is intimately tied up with the protection of its historical memory and religious heritage. While travelling through the village of Rohtas in Jhelum district, a local Muslim gentleman anonymously led us to the shrine of Mata Kaur Sahib. Sweeping the floor as he unlocked the gate, it was clear that his ethic of service stemmed from a sense of communal honour. Just outside the village, moreover, there was another Muslim elder supervising Gurdwara Choa Sahib, which was built by Maharaja Ranjit Singh. Both men recounted how it was only yatris who now visited these sites.

As I recited the Ardaas perching over the sarovar, the realisation that my ancestors would have prayed exactly where I stood, filled me with a tear-inducing sense of fate. Maybe it was my kismat. Inter-faith cooperation is usually based on a dynamic of reciprocity.

The destruction of remote, rural Sikh sangats in 1947, however, means that the opportunity for mutuality has been lost.

That fact makes the pious diligence of these individuals even more compelling. It demonstrates how the value of historical preservation has a universal, even transcendental, quality.

Desire to ‘Return’ Isn’t Unique to Sikhs

An inevitable question remains: can Kartarpur really undo the scars of Partition? Two experiences led me to a disconcerting conclusion. In August 1947, my great-great grandparents, Sardar Gian Singh and Phoolan Vati, were brutally murdered by a Muslim pir in the town of Sanghoi outside Jhelum. Upon exiting my car in the midst of night-time market frenzy, a hobbling man in shalwar kameez asked if I was lost. In my state of confusion, I explained the violence suffered by my ancestors at a distance unlikely too far from his contemporary drinks-stand. His empathetic reply was succinct: Sikh and Hindu life is now extinct where it was once abundant. A youthful imam, meanwhile, cheerily invited us into his mosque. In this remote town, it was highly likely that he and his fellow worshippers had never met someone of another faith.

The emptiness of desertion similarly ricocheted on Mohini Road in Lahore, where my maternal Grandfather, Dr Malvinder Pal Singh, spent his early childhood. A passer-by humorously exclaimed his support for ‘Khalistan’ and Kashmiri independence. Ultimately, it seems fortune is the force which has sustained minorities in Punjab’s cities. For instance, the Krishna Mandir on Ravi Road survived reprisal attacks following the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992.

The desire to return is not unique to Sikhs.

In Islamabad, an elderly woman from Dehradun was insatiable in her longing to re-experience India: “agar Sikhs aa sakate hain, to ham kyon nahin ja sakate?” Without a colossal inter-state effort – unlikely in the era of Hindu nationalism – the dream of restoring the diversity of Punjab remains just that. Perhaps the unrelenting smiles of innocent children are enough for now.

(Sapan Maini-Thompson is training to become a barrister in the UK. He tweets @SapanMaini. This is a personal blog. Views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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