Originally Published 2011-07-20 00:00:00 Published on Jul 20, 2011
In the aftermath of 9/11, fissures between the 'Islamic' and 'non-Islamic' world - a categorisation which is rather nebulous - have 'vindicated' the claims of many individuals on the Indian and Pakistani side that faith is a cause of conflict between both countries.
Religious connectivity in Indo-Pak context
Nearly 64 years after the partition of India, there are individuals in both India and Pakistan who fervently believe that faith is responsible for all the acrimony prevalent between the two nuclear States. In the aftermath of 9/11, fissures between the ’Islamic’ and ’non-Islamic’ world - a categorisation which is rather nebulous - have only ’vindicated’ the claims that faith is a cause of conflict between both countries.

This, however, is merely one side of the story, and just as there is an incomplete understanding of Indo-Pak history, so is there an incomplete understanding of some contemporary positive events. In the last six years, Sikh pilgrims have been paying obeisance at historical religious shrines in Pakistan, such as Nankana Sahib and Panja Sahib. These pilgrimages have not been disrupted even during times of tension. Pilgrims, who are apprehensive before they visit Pakistan, return with a different opinion, as they are warmly received by the Pakistani public.

Of late some interesting ideas for enhancing religious connectivity between India and Pakistan have been gaining ground. First, the movement for the Kartarpur corridor has been gaining ground both in India and abroad. For those not familiar with the term, Kartarpur (now in Pakistan) is the place where the founder of the Sikh faith, Guru Nanak, spent the last 18 years of his life and had both Hindu and Muslim followers. Kartarpur, which falls in district Narowal, is home to the Sikh shrine Darbar Sahib, and this shrine is barely three kilometres from the Indian border. Before the Indo-Pak war of 1965, it is said that there was a bridge on the Ravi that Sikh pilgrims could cross over and visit Darbar Sahib. During the 1965 war, however, this bridge was destroyed; it might be mentioned that the relationship between the two countries became more tense in the aftermath of this war and visa regimes became stricter with the passage of time.

For a long time - nearly a decade - Sikhs, predominantly settled in the Indian Punjab, have been demanding visa-free access to Darbar Sahib. One of the individuals who have been tirelessly working for this cause is Kuldeep Singh Wadala, a well-respected leader of Indian Punjab.

The Pakistani side has been quite upbeat about this demand and the minister for religious affairs and minorities in the previous Musharraf government, Ijazul Haq, announced that the Pakistani government would have no objection to Sikh pilgrims crossing over to the Pakistani side to pay obeisance without a visa, provided they return the same day. Even the present government has been quite encouraging in its response and has in fact started constructing a road that would make the pilgrimage smoother. This is a significant development, given that it has taken place in the aftermath of the Mumbai attacks and when relations have been rather topsy-turvy.

The Indian government has been promising that it will look into the issue but there has not been much progress. The earlier Indian external affairs minister and present finance minister, Pranab Mukherjee, visited the Indian side of the border - Dera Baba Nanak - in June 2008, which is also home to a Sikh shrine and promised the Sikh community that the government is looking into various ways of going ahead with the visa-free pilgrimage from Dera Baba Nanak to Kartarpur. In the meanwhile, the Mumbai attacks happened and things slowed down, though a resolution was passed in the Indian Punjab assembly, in October 2010, for going ahead with this project.

Interestingly, a former US diplomat, Ambassador John McDonald, who runs an NGO called the Institute for Multi-Track Diplomacy (IMTD), has also been lobbying for the cause ever since he visited the site in June 2008. IMTD brought out a feasibility study in 2009, and has recommended that this site be declared a peace zone. McDonald, who was shocked to see the barbed wire that separated Dera Baba Nanak from Kartarpur, has been lobbying hard with diplomats from India and Pakistan and officials in the US government.

Like Indian Punjab, Indian Kashmir too yearns for more porous borders and IMTD, which first mooted the idea for the Srinagar-Muzaffarabad bus service, has also recently proposed a bus service from Muzaffarabad to Hazratbal. It is crucial for central governments on both sides to take these and other proposals for boosting religious tourism, as India and Pakistan are both home to historical religious sites of numerous faiths.

Including such initiatives in Indo-Pak negotiations between foreign ministers or foreign secretaries will hyphenate them to the overall relationship, whereas religious tourism can actually be promoted jointly by the ministries of tourism and culture and minorities affairs, with assistance from the concerned religious organisations and state governments. Some of the issues that can be examined are the difficulties pilgrims currently face in securing visas and increasing connectivity to religious shrines through rail/bus or, wherever possible, by land.

Promoting initiatives such as the ones discussed above is a reminder of the common South Asian past, an integral component of people-to-people contact. It will also be beneficial for the economies of both countries, more so the Pakistani economy, which is in a desolate condition.

(The writer is an Associate Fellow with  Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi)

Courtesy: The Daily Times

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