Divided by history, can religious tourism bring India and Pakistan closer?

A passage to Pakistan.
A passage to Pakistan.
Image: EPA/Rahat Dar
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Every year, thousands of Sikhs in India’s Punjab state visit a raised platform at the border with Pakistan. They gather to catch a glimpse of a temple on the other side—with binoculars.

The temple, Gurdwara Kartarpur Sahib, marks the location where the founder of Sikhism, Guru Nanak, lived for 17 years till he died in 1539. With the 500th anniversary of the temple’s founding coming up in 2022, many more Sikhs are likely to visit.

So far, the distrustful India-Pakistan relationship has ensured that the best that most Indian Sikh pilgrims can hope for are binoculars.

But a World Bank-funded project by Pakistan’s Punjab province is trying to change that.

In a move to open up religious tourism at its numerous Sikh, Hindu, Muslim, and Buddhist sites, the Punjab government plans to begin spending $50 million in January 2017 to renovate cultural and religious landmarks. It also will adopt a bolder marketing strategy and facilitate opening of hotels and other tourist services.

Once fully implemented, the projected revenue for Pakistan’s tourism industry from these religious sites is estimated at $1.85 billion every year. After all, demand for religious pilgrimage to Pakistan is higher than what the current visa rules allow. Although religious pilgrimages to Pakistan from India and elsewhere happen annually, only about 15,000 pilgrims from around the world obtain visas every year. Most are Sikhs because there are many important Sikh temples in Pakistan. The birthplace of Guru Nanak at Nankana Sahib, for instance.

“The Mecca and Medina of the Sikh community are in Pakistan,” says Ramesh Singh Arora, a Pakistani Sikh community leader and a member of the Pakistan Punjab National Assembly.

According to an official working on the project, the focus is on other parts of the world for the time being. But if visa conditions allow, the eventual intention is to tap India, which the official confirmed would be an important market for tourism in Pakistan.

Broader ties

If the visa regime is loosened, it would possibly have implications for the broader India-Pakistan relationship too. Last year, the then-Indian high commissioner to Pakistan TCA Raghav had said in Lahore that increased religious tourism between India and Pakistan could improve relations.

This kind of human exchange poses a chicken and egg problem for observers: could religious tourism help normalise relations outside of a sluggish diplomatic process? Or will the trust required to allow a porous border emerge only after geopolitical quagmires such as Kashmir are resolved?

There is little dispute that more human exchange through trade, tourism, education etc—often referred to as people-to-people relations—would be an economic boon to both countries and allow better cooperation on various issues of mutual concern. The Indian and Pakistani foreign ministries acknowledged as much in a 2012 joint statement.

Advocates of such initiatives argue that they have the potential to change how Indians and Pakistanis perceive each other. Negative portrayals have often made more enemies out of each other on both sides.

“Greater contact between normal people from either countries will certainly help create more exposure to each other and put aside a lot of preconceived notions,” says Sanjana Joshi, a senior consultant for the Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations, who is working on a project to strengthen exchanges between India and Pakistan in the health sector.

Last year’s Shaan-e-Pakistan, a three-day cultural event in New Delhi showcasing both Pakistani and Indian fashion, was received warmly by many Indians. In March, over a 100 Hindus from India came to Pakistan to celebrate Maha Shivratri at the Katas Raj temple in the Pakistani Punjab’s Chakwal district. The group leader said he was impressed by how they were treated by the Pakistanis.

Joshi says regularising contact will create constituencies with vested interests in maintaining good relations. “When religious tourism really supported by the two governments takes off, it will create stakeholders on both sides in keeping this going,” she says.

Deep distrust

However, those working on the project caution that the policy has to be prudent. It would be practically impossible for a single initiative to resolve the tensions that underlie a burdensome visa regime.

Sumit Ganguly of Indiana University Bloomington believes there is a fundamental flaw with using people-to-people contact as a means to improve relations. The professor of political science, and author of an upcoming book on India-Pakistan relations, says the strategy is trying to end a rivalry that, in its current state, is irreconcilable.

As long as Pakistan remains bent on changing the current power dynamic while India wishes to preserve it, Ganguly is not confident that dialogue, let alone human exchange, can do much to change government-level distrust.

“There is no evidence that cultural and religious contacts can change fundamentally differing and incompatible interests. There is no serious literature in international politics on the termination of rivalries that supports this proposition. If anything, those contacts might develop after the rivalry diminishes,” Ganguly wrote in an email.

Shahid Malik, who served two terms as Pakistan’s high commissioner to India, agrees that religious tourism is insignificant in the grander scheme of Indo-Pak relations. Although an advocate of a liberalised visa regime, he is not convinced that good sentiments and people-to-people exchanges will influence policymakers.

He does strongly believe in dialogue though. “There is no substitute to talking to each other. Even if you sit across the table and agree to disagree, it is better than not talking to each other,” says Malik.

An experiment

Joshi, however, contrasts religious tourism with other smaller people-to-people initiatives. Pilgrimage is a widespread activity in India, as tens of millions of Indians go on religious pilgrimages every year.

She argues that religious tourism could serve as an experiment for other avenues of exchange. “When you’re talking about large sections of people moving from one country to the other, then whatever mechanism they come up with will have to be utilised for other categories later,” she says.

However, before the effects of Pakistan’s new religious tourism policy become manifest, major challenges remain in providing infrastructure, marketing, visa access, and security. The World Bank project, therefore, is not banking on a sea change in its early stages. It is looking at modest gains in the next three years.

This year’s Baisakhi festival in April attracted almost 4,000 Sikhs from India, Europe, and North America to Pakistan’s Punjab province. If that number reaches a targeted 12,000 by 2019, it could be a strong start.

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