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Kartarpur Corridor: Sikh Soft Power – Modern Diplomacy

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Ever
since the inauguration of the Kartarpur Corridor, three months ago, in November
2019, it has drawn the attention of media and strategic analysts in South Asia,
and outside the region, for different reasons. The Corridor, a long standing
demand of the Sikh community, connects Dera Baba Nanak (Punjab, India) with Gurudwara
Darbar Sahib, (Narowal Kartarpur in Pakistan) (which are barely 5 kilometres
apart). Individuals wanting to pay obeisance at Darbar Sahib, can cross over
through the Corridor, without a visa.

The
founder of the Sikh faith, Guru Nanak Sahib spent a crucial phase of his life
— the last 18 years — at the town of Kartarpur, which he founded (in 2019,
along with members of the community, many governmental and non-governmental
organisations, in different capacities commemorated the 550th birth
anniversary of Guru Nanak Sahib).

While it is true, that in recent years,  there has been an increase in the number of
Sikh pilgrims visiting Pakistan on important religious occasions, and the
Pakistan government had taken steps to encourage more Sikh pilgrims, the opening
of the Kartarpur Corridor is significant, given that pilgrims can travel
without a visa.

 Darbar Sahib, Kartarpur is especially relevant,
not just from a symbolic point of view, because Guru Nanak Sahib spent a
significant part of his life –18 years. But because it was at Kartarpur, that
Guru Nanak Sahib who came up with an alternative paradigm, and sought to
challenge the status quo in South Asia, along with some of his close followers
from different faiths, propagated the Sikh philosophy (Meditation
and remembrance of God, honest and truthful labour, and sharing one’s earning
with the needy
are often referred to as the three
important pillars
of the Sikh philosophy, which were enunciated, by Guru Nanak Sahib)

Kartarpur
Corridor: Current context

If one
were to look at the current situation, Kartarpur Corridor and the response so
far, while it is true, that there are a number of logistical issues, which have
resulted in the number of pilgrims crossing over, being far lesser than
estimates. According to official estimates, from the Indian side, the number of
individuals who have crossed over through the corridor is a little less than 45,000 ever since the opening of the
Corridor.

One of
the major causes identified for the Corridor, not receiving the sort of
response, which was expected, is the requirement of a Passport for travel to
Kartarpur. The Sikh community had been demanding an arrangement where by any ID
would suffice.

Yet,
there have been a number of positive outcomes. It has resulted in interactions
between Sikh Community and locals. Pilgrims have returned with positive stories
not just with regard to the Darbar Sahib, but the warmth of the local
population.

The
opening of the Corridor hasalso opened up vistas in the area of religious
tourism not just for Sikhs, but for the Hindu community as well. Pakistan has
stated, that not only will it renovate Hindu
Temples
, but will
also permit pilgrims from India access to Gurudwaras and Hindu Temples they
were not permitted to visit earlier.

Pakistan
itself is likely to benefit not just economically, through religious tourism,
but in terms of it’s international image.

Impact on
South Asia’s geopolitics

One
aspect, which can not be ignored is the Corridor’s impact in the context of
South Asia’s geopolitics. A number of observers of South Asia, were surprised,
that the Religious Corridor actually went ahead in spite of tensions between
India and Pakistan (which have consistently deteriorated in 2019) . Similarly,
a number of naysayers, in the media as well as strategic community, have been
critical of the Corridor, arguing that Pakistan could use it to foment
militancy in Punjab (this is a rather simplistic argument, which fails to take
into account the sensitivities of Sikh pilgrims, who have no real interest in
the politics of deep-states, and looks at the issue from a rather narrow lens)

What is
especially interesting is, how the Corridor has drawn global attention. US,
China and a number of other countries have welcomed the opening of the corridor,
saying that it will pave the way for peace and harmony in South Asia. A number
of Sikh activists and commentators have been speaking about the need for ‘Sikh
Soft Power’
which can be effective in blunting narratives of bigotry and narrow
mindedness which have gained currency globally in the past few years.

The
opening of the Corridor, and its potential role in reducing conflict could be
an important component of this Sikh Soft Power. In 2019, a number of other
important events have helped in enhancing the stature of Sikhs globally. First,
Sikhs in different walks of life have taken an unequivocal stance, against hate
both in India and outside. Two prominent Sikh
politicians
– Tanmanjeet Singh a Labour MP in UK and Gurratan
Singh
, a New
Democratic Party (NDP) legislator from Ontario in Canada were hailed for taking
a firm stand against Islamophobia. Second, Khalsa
Aid
(founded
by a British Sikh, Ravi Singh) an international charity while following the
Sikh principles of compassion and Nishkam (selfless
service)has provided humanitarian aid in conflict zones, and regions struck by
calamities like floods and earthquakes. The stellar work of Khalsa Aid, is now
recognized not just in South Asia, but globally.

It would
be pertinent to point out, that The UN head, Antonio Guterres, also visited the
Corridor during his recent visit to Pakistan. He had welcomed the opening of
the Corridor in November 2019. “paving way
for interfaith harmony and understanding by facilitating visa-free cross border
visits by pilgrims to holy shrines.”

This visit is important, because it brings to the fore the relevance of
the Kartarpur Corridor in a global context. The UN Chief while commenting on his visit to Kartarpur,
dubbed it as a symbol of Inter faith harmony. A prominent US based Sikh
activist, Harinder Singh in a tweet stated, that the UN Chief’s visit was
significant. Said Singh:

‘Guru Nanak Sahib started
langar at Kartarpur Sahib, free & open distribution of Wisdom & Food. United Nation’s
Secretary-General & Pakistan’s Minister for Religious Affairs Dr. Noor Ul
Haq Qadri partook rice & lentil. Hope 1-Ness wisdom prevails to realize
peace via the Panjab’

Conclusion

In conclusion, Kartarpur Corridor has religious significance for the
Sikh community, but it has the potential for reducing tensions in South Asia
(by possibly making a beginning, by propelling greater bonhomie and economic
integration between both Panjab’s) and could pave the way for greater people to
people initiatives as well as trade between India and Pakistan. The Corridor
will also help in highlighting the role, which the Sikh faith has, not merely
as a ‘bridge-builder’, but an active facilitator of peace in South Asia at a
time when the hopes are dim. The Corridor thus is important, as it is an important
component of ‘Sikh Soft Power’ and also reiterates the relevance of what has
been dubbed as Faith Based Diplomacy.

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