On the 7th of September, newly appointed Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry, in an interview to BBC, announced that Pakistan is working out a plan to open Kartarpur border for Sikh pilgrims who will be allowed to visit the holy shrine of Guru Nanak, founder of Sikh religion, without a visa. The development has understandably been a good news for the Sikh community in India that has been requesting their government to take an initiative on these lines since long. That being said, Pakistan opening Kartarpur border for Sikh pilgrims will also prove beneficial for the country itself.
Significance of Kartarpur
Kartarpur is as sacred for Sikhs as Madina and Makkah are for Muslims! Situated in Narowal district of Punjab, Pakistan and only 4 km away from India, in the heart of Kartarpur is the shrine of Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism who lived there during the last 18 years of his life.
In 1539, when the Sikh Guru left the world, the first ever Gurdwara (a place of worship for Sikhs) was built in this town. It envelops the shrine of Guru Nanak and is now known as Gurdwara Darbar Sahib Kartarpur.
Every year, scores of Sikhs come to Pakistan from across the border for Yatra (holy visit). Unfortunately, those who aren’t able to cross the border have to make do by doing Darshan (sacred site seeing) from the Indian side through binoculars.
A History of Tension!
Given the uncertain relations of Pakistan and India, getting a visa has always been a daunting task for the Sikhs and thus, they have taken the matter to Delhi numerous times but to no avail.
In fact, in year 2000 Pakistan offered to build a bridge from the Indian border to the Gurdwara so that the pilgrims could visit without a visa. However, India’s government showed little interest and in 2017 went as far as to reject the idea altogether following the souring of relations with Pakistan.
Thanks to Navjot Singh Sidhu, the Indian cricketer turned politician, a new leaf was added to the Kartarpur border dialogue when he visited Pakistan last month for the oath-taking ceremony of his friend Imran Khan as the Prime Minister of Pakistan.
The politician used this opportunity to push the envelope on opening Kartarpur border for pilgrims on the 550th birth anniversary of Guru Nanak when he met Pakistan’s COAS General Qamar Bajwa.
On returning home, Navjot had to face a lot of heat from the alt-right groups in India for the gesture.
However, all of it paid off in less than a month’s time when Pakistan’s Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry announced the opening of Kartarpur border for Sikh pilgrims on Guru Nanak’s birth anniversary.
Since the development, India has not reciprocated to the offer yet. While India has a lot to lose if she chooses to ignore the grievances of the Sikh community once again, Pakistan, on the other hand, can benefit from the opening of the border in three ways.
1. Bringing in Tourism!
According to a report, Pakistan’s travel and tourism sector contributed Rs 930.9 billion (2.9% of Pakistan’s GDP) in the fiscal year of 2017. Now, the figures have shown significant improvement compared to previous years, however the true potential of the tourism sector largely remains unexploited due to several reasons. One of them being the hustle that comes with applying for a visa!
Letting people from the other side of the border visit Northern Punjab visa-free will open avenues for tourism and travel in the province and help elevate the revenue further!
2. Promoting a Softer Image of Pakistan!
Over the last two decades, Pakistan’s reputation in the international arena has suffered big blows as a result of either misfiring strategies or inability to produce counter-narratives. The echo chambers at both regional and extra-regional levels have been structured in a way that only shows Pakistan in a negative light!
Welcoming the followers of a different religion, coming from a country described as an arch-rival of Pakistan, in order to allow them to celebrate their holy event freely will show the world the tolerant face of the state and promote a softer image.
On the contrary, letting go of such an opportunity will deprive Pakistan of another chance to create a counter-narrative needed to cancel out the noises echoing with Pakistan’s role as an antagonist.
3. Giving Peace a Chance!
Sikh community, to some extent, is an influential segment of the Indian power corridors. Winning the trust and harmonizing relations with Sikhs gives both the countries a channel for soft or rather backdoor diplomacy which can come in handy considering the volatile ties shared by the two nuclear powers of the subcontinent.
Therefore, the most vital advantage of Pakistan opening Kartarpur border for Sikh pilgrims is another shot at fostering peace between the age-old adversaries because truth be told, both the countries have bled enough already!