Keeping his promise, Pakistan premier Imran Khan on Wednesday, 28 November, performed the ground-breaking ceremony for the proposed Kartarpur Sahib corridor.
On Monday, 26 November, Indian Vice President Venkaiah Naidu and Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh laid the foundation stone at the Indian side at Dera Baba Nanak, three kilometers from the Gurdwara where Guru Nanak spent the last 17 years of his life.
If this project reaches fruition by next November, the 550th birth anniversary of Guru Nanak, it could mark a seachange in relations between arch rivals India and Pakistan. It could also set a precedent for the role religion can play to bring peace among erstwhile enemy nations and become a clarion call for peace in South Asia.
Perhaps the most common critique of all religions is Karl Marx's phrase: opiate of the masses.
Forgetting the Value of Religion
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. It is the opiate of the people.”
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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 one 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, 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.”
When Two Punjabis Meet, They Hug
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 Civilisation, a plea for peace in a sub-continent divided by the one of the most militarised borders, a soulful cry not only of the Sikhs but also of around 12 crore people of different sects and affiliations, who believe in the name of Nanak.
The developments this week seemed impossible just three months ago when Punjab Minister Navjot Singh Sidhu visited Pakistan and hugged their Army chief Qamar Javed Bajwa, who had proposed the corridor.
The nationalist television studios, ruling Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP), 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 came in to glorify its beleaguered alliance partner Shiromani Akali Dal.
The cynical propaganda against the corridor shows how far the national narrative is from both east and west Punjab whose people share language, culture, deep bonds and have always aspired for peace.
The national discourse does not get a simple fact: when two Punjabis meet, they hug as a way of greeting each other. It does not get it that former cricket stalwarts Imran Khan and Navjot Sidhu seek to re-write history.
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.
To fall apart, the proposal just needs:
- Some plants by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) to be apprehended by Indian security.
- There is supposed activity by Sikh organisations 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.
- The scenario post 2019 elections, when the project is still mid-way, hangs as a Damocles sword.
- The Punjab CM mentioned travel will be visa-free. It needs to be implemented to be believed.
- The management of the Gurdwara will be with Pakistan’s Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee and there should not be a claim on it by the now Parkash Singh Badal-controlled Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee.
If This Project Succeeds...
The Kartarpur Sahib Gurdwara was freely accessible until the 1960s. In the early 2000s, Pakistan made an attempt to open access, but was thwarted by the Indian government. The SAD was in power, and SGPC was in control.
That is why, since then, people have been having the darshan through binoculars at the Border Security Force post at Dera Baba Nanak. It is set to change now.
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 Punjabs and nations. Most of all, it would lead to demilitarisation 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.
It is a razor’s edge. As we say in Punjab: Rabb Rakha!
(The writer is an author and is working on a book on Punjab. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)