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OPENING KARTARPUR CORRIDOR: Pakistan’s good will gesture to promote peace and tourism

Prime Minister Imran Khan on Friday announced that Sikh pilgrims who arrive from India to visit Kartarpur will no longer need a passport to cross over into Pakistan as long as they have a valid identity. In a tweet on Friday morning, the premier also announced that he had directed that the condition for pilgrims to register 10 days before their arrival to the Kartarpur shrine also be waived.

The initiative of developing the Kartarpur Corridor for Sikh community is a great goodwill gesture by the Government of Pakistan. However, Indian reservations regarding Pakistan’s motives are a clear proof that India is not in favour of granting full religious rights to its minorities especially the Muslims and the Sikh community. From the perspective of the Sikh community, visa free access to the holy place would be a benefiting tribute to Guru Nanak, who rose to break the stranglehold of the oppressive systems of social and religious orders in nascent Punjab. Prime Minister Imran Khan on Wednesday laid the foundation stone for the corridor on Nov. 28, 2018.

The Kartarpur Corridor is expected to open doors for region’s economic growth and boost the tourism industry on both sides. People of both countries want peace and development. It will generate economic connectivity between two the Punjabs. It is a significant step towards reconciliation and is likely to foster shared cultural and historical linkages. Pakistan is also considering a similar arrangement for Hindu pilgrims who want to visit the Katas Raj Temple and Sharda Peeth; monuments of historic and spiritual value.

Geographically Kartarpur is in Narowal district of Punjab province. It is the place where Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism, spent the last 18 years of his life till his death in 1539. The gurdwara built here is one of the holiest shrines in Sikhism. Located across river Ravi in Pakistan, barely six kilometers away from Dera Baba Nanak shrine in Gurdaspur, Punjab (India), is Kartarpur Sahib. The population is primarily Punjabi, speaking Punjabi and Urdu. English is spoken by some as a second language. The ethnic groups include majority Gujjars and Jats. The gurdwara is also notable for its location near the border between Pakistan and India. The shrine is visible from the Indian side of the border. Indian Sikhs gather in large numbers on bluffs to perform darshan, or sacred viewing of the site, from the Indian side of the border.

The glorious white building is one of Sikh community’s most sacred sites was built in 1925 at a cost of Rs.1,35,600, donated by Sardar Bhupindar Singh, the Maharaja of Patiala. It was repaired by the Government of Pakistan in 1995, and fully restored in 2004, at a significant amount.There are several masjids in the town. After the partition of India in 1947, the minority Hindus and Sikhs migrated to India while many Muslim refugees from India settled down in Kartarpur.

The Pakistan government has approved the development of a corridor from Gurdwara Darbar Sahib Kartarpur to the international border. Prime Minister Imran Khan’s government on Tuesday earmarked Rs 100 crore in the federal budget 2019-20 for the development of the much-awaited Kartarpur corridor.

The visa-free border crossing from India to Kartarpur, Pakistan, would be inaugurated on Nov 9, just ahead of the 550th birth anniversary of Sikhism founder Baba Guru Nanak on Nov 12, Pakistani project director Atif Majeed quoted as saying on Monday.

The project is a rare recent example of cooperation between the two nuclear powers, who came close to war in February following a militant attack on police in India-held Kashmir. India revoked the special status of its portion of the disputed territory last month, inflaming relations once again.

The Sikh minority community in India’s northern state of Punjab and elsewhere has long sought easier access to the temple in Kartarpur, a village just over the border in Pakistan. The temple marks the site where the guru died. To get there, travellers currently must first secure hard-to-get visas, travel to Lahore or another major Pakistani city and then drive to the village, which is just four kilometres from the Indian border.

Instead of visas, the Sikh pilgrims will be given special permits to access the shrine. Indian pilgrims will pay Pakistan $20 to use the corridor, which includes roadways, an 800-metre bridge over the River Ravi and an immigration office. Up to 5,000 Indians will be allowed access daily, with plans to eventually double the capacity.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi will inaugurate the Kartarpur Corridor’s Integrated Check Post on the Indian side on Nov 8. He will also attend the religious program organized by the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee (SGPC) to mark the 550th birth anniversary celebrations of Guru Nanak Dev.

A bus of Sikh tourists is coming to Pakistan from Canada for the celebration of 550th birth anniversary of Baba Guru Nanak. A Canadian Sikh family arranged a special bus to attend the celebrations of 550th birth anniversary of the founder of Sikh religion, according to a video that went viral on social media. The bus has reached Paris. The video shows the bus having facilities of kitchen, dining table, washroom and bedroom.”Journey to Kartarpur” is written on its front side. It has got the map of the route that the bus is taking from Canada to Sultanpur Lodhi in India via Kartarpur. The map shows the bus crossing the Atlantic in a ship. The map shows the bus going to London, UK, France, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Turkey and Iran before reaching Kartarpur. It scheduled arrival in Sultanpur Lodhi in India is in November.

The bus started its journey from the city of Brampton in Canada on Sept 3. The Canadian Sikh family will also attend the opening ceremony of Kartarpur corridor. From Kartarpur, the bus will go to Sultanpur Lodhi, India. The tour, having about 10 people, is being led by Gurcharan Singh Banwait. It is a non-profit initiative led by the International Punjabi Foundation, Canada. Launched earlier this year in April, with a mission is to promote World Peace and International Cooperation through a driven Journey that will span half the globe. All of this is in efforts to build a Guru Nanak Mission Centre in Kartarpur for those in need.

Nevertheless, there is some anxiety too. The world Sikh community has expressed its concern at the big ‘airport-like’ constructions by India on its side of border at Kartarpur, dwarfing the Nishan Sahib (Sikh flag) planned at Darbar Sahib and Pakistan agreeing to a fairly large number of pilgrims that may damage ecology of the sacred fields around the Sikh heritage site. The Sikh diaspora comprising around 27 million souls is much concerned at reports that India is constructing a huge terminal worth Rs. 5 billion at Dera Baba Nanak. It includes a 300 feet high Indian monumental flag, which will neither represent the spiritual essence of the sacred space nor the heritage architecture from the Guru period or the Sikh architecture of post-Guru period. Presumably, the Indian flag, which would be higher than the Nishan Sahib (Sikh flag) would smacks of supremacy and ego and not of honour and submission to the feet of the great Guru. It has been created a “catch-22 like” situation for Pakistan as if it decides to put a flag post taller than the Nishan Sahib, it puts itself in an awkward position with the Sikhs. And this might become a “the Attari-Wagah-like macho contest”. Furthermore, Pakistan may allow as much as 5,000 visa-free pilgrims daily. Definitely such a large number of visitors may hurt the flora and fauna of Kartarpur. Initially India would open the corridor for 500-750 Sikh pilgrims a day at the opening but wants Pakistan to allow up to 10,000 tourists per day and more on special occasions, right away. India is also demanding opening of the corridor to people of all faiths (not just Sikhs).

 

Environmentalists have shown concerns about how the fragile terrain and ecosystem of Kartarpur is already under attack with the massive corridor construction. And, five to ten thousand pilgrims a day would put a huge strain requiring enormous and commercial construction on the land where forests, orchards and organic fields of Baba Nanak existed for five and a half centuries. These constructions at this sacred site means losing all chances of archeologically reviving and rebuilding the historical space, buildings and artifacts as they may have existed in Baba Nanak’s time. The historic groundbreaking of the Kartarpur corridor opening has led to great speculation about the event’s significance for turbulent Pakistan-India relations.

On the other hand, the Indian government once again doused hopes that bilateral dialogue may be restarted soon. But while many on this side of the border are hailing the step as a positive development for relations, there are conflicting voices and messages from Indian government and politicians on the Kartarpur Sahib corridor. Reading between the lines of the Indian leadership’s strategic incoherence on Kartarpur, it seems that despite claiming that it was originally an Indian proposal, Delhi was caught unprepared by Pakistan’s readiness to open the corridor. The Kartarpur corridor presented the greatest opportunity in a decade to break the impasse with Pakistan. India should have signaled its assent to the holding of the SAARC summit. Given the bilateral freeze, the Kartarpur project will compel India and Pakistan to engage in a positive and purposeful manner, at a time when few other avenues for engagement exist. It is a reminder that dialogue and search for areas of concord are the only way forward for both countries.

The anti-Pakistani sentiments no longer resonate in Punjab. Muslims on the Indian side and Sikhs on the Pakistani part of Punjab were, so to speak, “cleansed” during Partition. Today, the horrific events have receded from memory, and been replaced somewhat by nostalgia for the days of united Punjab. This was evident from the fact that Sidhu did not face criticism within Punjab itself. Indeed, given the Pakistani offer, it appeared that New Delhi was scoring a self-goal among the Sikh community by not taking it up immediately.

There are over 20 million Sikhs living in India, most of which are concentrated in bordering Punjab. A survey by World Bank indicates that Pakistan religious tourism sector has a captured market for Sikhs since two-fifths of respondents considered it a religious duty to visit shrines in Pakistan.Currently, Sikhs line up to stand on a platform to be able to view the Kartarpur temple. The Border Security Force has specially constructed ‘Darshan Sthal’ by providing binoculars to visiting devotees for a view of the gurdwara.

For example, the Golden Temple in Amritsar in India attracts about million visitors per year making it one of the most visited religious destination in the world. The Golden temple is considered the fourth religious site, while the first gurdwara in the world was built in Guru Nanak in the 1520s in Kartarpur. This indicates the potential gains from Sikh religious tourism alone.

During 2008-2012, World Bank estimates that an average of 6,000 pilgrims visited per year, despite the quota of 7,500 extended to visitors with Indian passports. The arduous visa application process with stringent background checks and uncertain outcomes is much to blame. A study commissioned by World Bank’s task team estimated that if proper facilities were provided and marketing efforts made, tourism could exceed 300,000 persons per years which could yield economic benefits of up to $300 million per year. The opening of Kartarpur corridor is a step in that direction. While Kartarpur facilitates Indians alone, higher activity in the temples could also pull in the Sikh diaspora based in Britain, US and Canada. Survey indicates that a visit generates an average $2,700 over ten days per person. In addition, Pakistan based tour operators survey responses indicated that an average diaspora family spends $3,000-5,000 on shopping once they visit.

Flourishing local religious tourism allows ancillary services to flourish. Lessons can be learnt from the Indian Punjab side. The Khalsa Heritage Memorial Complex located at Anandpur Sahib was built to attract tourists and pilgrims to shrines associated with Guru Tegh Bahadur. Within three years of the inauguration, growth in tourist arrivals resulted in the establishment of 3,015 firms in the concerned sector.

However, extending visa free facilities is not enough. Specific infrastructure such as boarding and lodging facilities, access roads, road-side facilities, parking, pedestrian areas, are some of the essentials required to sustain religious tourism. Kartarpur has the potential to become an effective tourism development vehicle but a lot more work needs to be put in before Pakistan can start benefiting from religious tourism.

Pakistan is a peace loving country and it wants to co-exist peacefully with its all neighbours, including India. Hence, the development of the Kartarpur corridor is an initiative of Pakistan to extend a hand of reconciliation and friendship to India, in a good spirit of seeking peace and friendship with it by resolving all disputes through a dialogue. In this context, Pakistan thinks that to break the ongoing logjam it is necessary to enhance people to people contacts, which will be greatly promoted by the development of the Kartarpur corridor.

Pakistan’s efforts towards achieving regional/international peace and stability are well known. Pakistan has sacrificed over 70,000 lives in the war against terrorism and due to its effective counter terrorism strategy, it has defeated it comprehensively. The development of the Kartarpur Corridor is another effort to promote regional peace and coherence for a bright future for the people of the region, by realizing peace and friendship between Pakistan and India. By contributing towards durable a peace and good relations between Pakistan and India, the Kartarpur corridor is also likely to help in advancing trade and economic relations and promoting tourism between the two countries. The mutual trade of agricultural products between both the countries, especially between the agriculture rich two Punjabs will greatly contribute towards facilitating the timely provision of staple food items, sugar, wheat, vegetables and fruits at lower prices, thus helping the people of both the countries. This will also encourage tourism between both countries. Thus, mutual trade and tourism will help them to earn a lot of foreign exchange and enhance their economic growth. Factually, building of the Kartarpur corridor is a win-win situation, provided India welcomes it in the same spirit as Pakistan is doing.

The decision to open the Kartarpur Corridor marks a step in the right direction by Pakistan. There have, however, been a number of similar attempts before. The Samjhauta Express, a train service linking Delhi and Lahore, and Sada-e-Sarhad, a bus service connecting Delhi and Lahore, were past initiatives that were launched with similar hopes and fanfare as the Kartarpur Corridor. Their impact on India-Pakistan relations was, however, limited to say the least. This time round, it is pertinent to note that the Pakistani military and the government claim to be on the same page. The future of the corridor and its potential impact on India-Pakistan relations is contingent upon whether the two states will be able to develop sustained channels through which to discuss, firstly, the modalities of religious travel, and, secondly, the expansion of such linkages to other sectors such as trade and commerce.

The author, Mr. Nazir Ahmed Shaikh, is a freelance columnist. He is an academician by profession and writes on diversified topics. Currently he is associated with SZABIST as Registrar and could be reached at  registrar@szabist.edu.pk.

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