Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism, spent the last 18 years of his life in a small village in undivided Punjab. On his 550th birth anniversary, that village, Kartarpur, has shot to political and diplomatic limelight in south Asia.
The Kartarpur Corridor, a 9km stretch between Dera Baba Sahib in India and Gurudwara Shri Kartarpur Sahib in Pakistan, will allow Sikh pilgrims holding a special permit to freely visit the shrine. It will be inaugurated tomorrow (Nov. 9), in time for Guru Nanak’s birthday, or Gurpurab, on Nov. 12.
In a stark departure from the old protocol, Pakistan will let in 5,000 Indian pilgrims of all faiths every day. Earlier, the number of visas granted were few and that, too, only to pilgrims travelling in groups.
This project is significant for multiple reasons, the most pertinent being diplomatic. The village is located in Pakistan’s Punjab state, only 5km from the border with India. It evokes strong memories of India’s violent partition in 1947.
“While the Sri Harmandir Sahib (or Golden Temple) in the Indian city of Amritsar remains Sikhism’s most important religious site, three sites (gurdwaras) deeply connected to the life of the religion’s founder, Guru Nanak, are now in Pakistan,” explains Australian political analyst Grant Wyeth in The Diplomat.
Of the nearly 27 million Sikhs in the world, 22 million live in India, mostly in the state of Punjab.
Being a state bordering Pakistan, Punjab is often caught in the crosshairs of the diplomatic, security, and religious frisson between the two countries. Since gaining independence from Britain, India and Pakistan have gone to war multiple times, and have had to manoeuvre complex trade and diplomatic ties.
Punjab itself was the scene of violent Sikh separatism in the 1980s and early 1990s.
More recently, ties frayed significantly after the attack on a paramilitary convoy in India’s Jammu & Kashmir in February 2019. The Indian Air Force struck in retaliation inside Pakistan, targeting terror camps. Following this, Pakistan temporarily blocked its airspace for Indian aircraft, even denying permission to prime minister Narendra Modi’s flights. Under such circumstances, a corridor allowing easy passage for pilgrims may come across as incongruent.
If the ongoing border tensions weren’t enough, it is feared that Sikh separatists, known as Khalistanis—often believed to have been aided by Pakistan—may use this new “opening up” to stir up trouble. Several observers feel the corridor could open up old wounds of Operation Bluestar (1984) that saw the Indian Army pummel the Golden Temple to flush out militants, the subsequent assassination of prime minister Indira Gandhi that year, and the massive anti-Sikh riots the killing sparked.
Some even see Pakistan’s move as a direct strategy to revive Sikh separatism.
A lot remains at stake for the Kartarpur Corridor, and India and Pakistan will have to work to ensure no border skirmishes impact pilgrim movement.
“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,” writes Iqbal Singh Sevea (pdf), visiting research associate professor at the Institute of South Asian Studies at National University Singapore.
For now, though, things are going smoothly for the pilgrims.
How to reach Kartarpur
Indian pilgrims need a special permit for the visit. This can be applied for online through a dedicated portal set up by India’s ministry of home affairs. Visitors can pick a date depending on availability of slots—they are fully booked till Nov. 20.
Those travelling to Kartarpur cannot visit any other place in Pakistan. They can carry up to 7 kilograms luggage and Rs11,000 ($155) in currency; they have to return to India the same day. While Pakistan’s foreign office has clarified that Indian passport is not mandatory for travel, it is advisable to have one.
Those with no access to internet or a computer can also visit the Punjab government’s many e-seva centres (pdf).