In Focus

A Corridor of Vision and Foresight

Great ideas are seldom conceived. They reveal themselves at the appropriate time to the appropriate people. The idea of the Kartarpur Corridor seems just such an idea. Inspiring and disarmingly humane in its very character, this idea has quite imperceptibly brought a seismic shift in the South Asian religious, political and cultural landscape. Religious because it allows roughly 160 million Sikh citizens of the world seamless access to their second holiest site. Political because it very effectively dispels the hateful propaganda against Pakistan that it is a spoiler of peace in the region, spewed both inside India and around the world. And cultural because it exposes a sizeable chunk of the Indian population to the cultural and religious pluralism the Pakistani state seeks to foster within the country at a time when it seems imperiled both in the region and the world. A veritable master stroke of sorts.



The Pakistani initiative also ties up neatly with the country’s desire to shore up its share of regional religious tourism. From venerated shrines of the Sikh religion to many sites of religious significance to the Buddhist and the Hindu communities, Pakistan has a lot to offer. The opening of the corridor then appears to be the first step in that direction. According to Governor Punjab Chaudhry Mohammad Sarwar, the religious tourism in the province alone can fetch revenues worth $5 billion. For a country with a fragile economy this is nothing short of a coup.


From venerated shrines of the Sikh religion to many sites of religious significance to the Buddhist and the Hindu communities, Pakistan has a lot to offer. The opening of the corridor then appears to be the first step in that direction. 


But as the corridor was being inaugurated a question was repeatedly being asked on various television screens. Could this initiative usher in an era of peace between India and Pakistan, the two countries that have spent most of their post-independence lives quarrelling about a host of issues? That too at a time when India under its current Hindutva regime has usurped the rights of the Kashmiri people in blatant disregard to its international commitments and codes of civility and is busy rewriting its erstwhile pluralist DNA with hate and fanaticism? Could this corridor be something more than what it promises to be – a method to grant access to the Sikh community to fulfill their religious obligations? The jury is still out on that. But two important facts deserve to be highlighted here: 1) When the corridor was announced there was no indication that India would significantly up the ante; 2) That Pakistan’s this measure conducive to peace in the region comes at a times when India seems to be transforming into an intolerant polity and the breathtaking contrast in the two demeanors is not lost on the world. So it was with a sigh of relief that many witnessed the fact that Pakistan did not allow hostility and irascibility to stand in the way of this great step. It has boosted Pakistan’s stature especially in view of India’s stubbornness.
Historic Significance of Kartarpur
In the Shakargarh Tehsil of Narowal district some four kilometers away from the Indian border stands a structure in a sprawling 400 acres compound. This is Gurdwara Darbar Sahib Kartarpur, the second holiest site of Sikhism. The founder of the Sikh faith, Baba Guru Nanak, founded Kartarpur on the right bank of Ravi River and spent his last eighteen years of life preaching there. It was on this venue that the first Sikh community was founded. Before 1947 the Sikh community from entire South Asia used to visit the gurdwara for darshan (pilgrimage). However, at the time of independence Pakistan inherited the Shakargarh Tehsil along with Kartarpur. The wounds of division and the ensuing hostility between the two nascent states ensured that the pilgrimage would be significantly difficult to partake. With various cross currents came relative if occasional ease. However, since the visa process between the two countries is very tough, a host of Sikh believers used to culminate on the Indian side of the border to view the Gurdwara through powerful telescopes. If Pakistan’s relations with the Sikh community were strained in the immediate aftermath of the partition owing to the bloodshed that accompanied it, they improved dramatically over time. Indian state’s brutal repression in its administered Punjab meanwhile and the resulting resentment has made it permanently suspicious of the Sikh subjects even when there is nothing to be skeptical about.


This project also works as a great outreach to the Sikh community which recently exhibited its humanism by sheltering of and facilitating the safe return of the daughters of Kashmir stranded in India after Modi’s draconian steps in the occupied state. This show of magnanimity has won countless hearts and minds in Kashmir and Pakistan. 


The Corridor Project
The idea of a corridor providing Indian yatris (pilgrims) access to Kartarpur has surfaced from time to time during peace talks between Pakistan and India. However, nothing noteworthy could be accomplished. In May 2017, an Indian standing committee of parliament declared that in view of the hostility between the two countries no such project was to be allowed and that instead more powerful telescopes would be installed on the Indian side of the border for the viewing comfort of the Sikh community. To what extent did the Indian state’s suspicion of its Sikh community play a part in this declaration is not known but it can be safely deduced that under the Modi government it must have been a factor. However, the situation changed when new government came into power in Pakistan. Prime Minister elect Imran Khan invited his old cricketing friend Navjot Singh Sidhu for his swearing in ceremony and he accepted to participate. Upon his return to India, Sidhu had to endure the Indian media’s harassment for having embraced the Pakistani Army Chief who was present at the ceremony. It was then that Sidhu announced that Pakistan had proposed to establish the corridor.



The Indian government’s hand was forced. On one side its paranoia made it reluctant to show enthusiasm about the project, on the other it could not afford to alienate a sizable chunk of its population. So it reluctantly went along and showed readiness to reciprocate. However, time and again it tried to vitiate the environment and sabotage partly if not primarily to put an end to the project. However, in a short period of 10 months Pakistan had completed the construction of the corridor and opened it on 9th of November this year. You can gauge the Indian state’s discomfort with the inauguration that the Babri Mosque/Ayodhya land case verdict was moved up one week and announced on the very same day ostensibly in order to divert media attention away from the Kartarpur celebrations. Sadly for India, in the current split screen reality of today, this too became a reflection on the striking contrast between the approaches of the two states, where one was seen facilitating minority pilgrims from abroad whereas the other was seen usurping consecrated land from the victims of decades old mob violence.


To the world in general too this is the reaffirmation of the fact that Pakistan wants peace and better rights for the minorities in the region. Given what is happening to the minorities in India, this could not have come at a better time. Pakistan’s journey of democratization, stabilization and pluralism is far from over, but it brings out a refreshing contrast to the unmitigated human tragedy that is currently unfolding in India.


To an estimate five thousand pilgrims from India will be able to visit Kartarpur Gurdwara visa free every single day. The visa relaxation was announced to ensure hassle free pilgrimage. These pilgrims will only need identity papers and will have to go through easy procedures to fulfill their lifelong dream. This corridor has been isolated from the adjoining areas through tall fences. At the inauguration ceremony Sidhu stated that Pakistan had won the hearts and minds of the 160 million Sikhs around the world.
Debunking Indian Propaganda and Hate Politics
Since the incumbent government in India came into power, the Hindutva regime has been whipping up war hysteria in the country under one pretext or the other. As it has rebuffed various Pakistani peace overtures it has maintained, before its population and the world in general, that it wants peace but various groups within Pakistan sabotage the process and therefore peace was presently not an option. India’s client media has immensely contributed to this war hysteria by presenting a caricature of the people of Pakistan to its viewers. In such an environment the constituency for peace in India shrank and has almost disappeared. The Kartarpur Corridor project seeks to create a permanent peace constituency in India. As these pilgrims visit the Gurdwara and are exposed to the local hospitality they are likely to take back a far more realistic and complimentary image of Pakistan. When the various Indian institutions are being dishonest to their own people, this is the best way to directly set the record straight.



This project also works as a great outreach to the Sikh community which recently exhibited its humanism by sheltering of and facilitating the safe return of the daughters of Kashmir stranded in India after Modi’s draconian steps in the occupied state. This show of magnanimity has won countless hearts and minds in Kashmir and Pakistan. Our Sikh friends have repeatedly proven that they deserve the very best and the most cordial response from the Pakistani state. And the Sikh population is not restricted to India alone. The goodwill thus generated travels across the world from North America and Europe to wherever the community resides.
To the world in general too this is the reaffirmation of the fact that Pakistan wants peace and better rights for the minorities in the region. Given what is happening to the minorities in India, this could not have come at a better time. Pakistan’s journey of democratization, stabilization and pluralism is far from over, but it brings out a refreshing contrast to the unmitigated human tragedy that is currently unfolding in India.
Jealous of this progress the Indian TV political pundits and retired policymakers want to degrade these overtures by branding them as Pakistan’s Sikh card and tend to view it through the lens of realpolitik. The subtext is always the same. That Pakistan wants to stoke the fire of separatism in the Indian administered Punjab. This often acts as an effective smokescreen to distract the Indian populace from the fact that the Indian repressive policies, and not Pakistan, created resentment in Punjab and if the Indian state and elite continue to lie to their own citizens this sense of alienation will only increase dramatically. Paranoia only exacerbates human suffering and only works to stymie effective social integration.


As has been pointed out earlier there is no dearth of religious sites and heritage in this country which are of great importance to various faiths. Some of these structures and sites have been restored, others are undergoing renovation. The goodwill generated by the Kartarpur Corridor will also create awareness about these places around the world and also attract investment for the tourism industry. 


Religious Tourism as an Industry
As the incumbent government unveils its vision and translates it into reality, it is clear that it sees a great potential in the tourism industry of which religious tourism is a vital part. As has been pointed out earlier there is no dearth of religious sites and heritage in this country which are of great importance to various faiths. Some of these structures and sites have been restored, others are undergoing renovation. The goodwill generated by the Kartarpur Corridor will also create awareness about these places around the world and also attract investment for the tourism industry. It seems remarkable to point out that when you look for the pros and cons of the corridor project you find no flip side to it. It brings prestige, attention, investment and more tourists to your doorstep. The concerns about security as expressed by some opposition leaders are basically concerns about governance and possible poor execution. These concerns will repeatedly be voiced by the skeptics for every individual tourism project. The Kartarpur project has been launched with very high standards of governance. If those standards are upheld there will hardly be any room for cynicism.
Conclusion
For a change Pakistan is garnering attention of the world for positive developments. After a long time it seems that roles have reversed in South Asia. This could not be possible without a visionary leadership and defenders who have sacrificed countless lives to defend the motherland from the scourge of terrorism. The Kartarpur Corridor is a living proof of these two realities and will take this country far.


The writer is an Islamabad-based TV journalist.
Twitter: @FarrukhKPitafi
E-mail: [email protected]
 

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