Nankana Sahib Is the Undoing of Kartarpur's Movement Towards an Inclusive Pakistani Identity

Even 'Hindu' or 'Sikh' heritage is a part of Pakistan's own.

Lahore: Fewer than two months apart, these two incidents could not be more in contrast to each other.

First came the inauguration of the Kartarpur peace corridor, attended by thousands of people, watched by many more around the world. After years of bad press this was finally Pakistan’s moment, a Muslim country, renovating and opening up the shrine of Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism.

In more than 70 years of Pakistan’s history, no other non-Muslim historical figure had received such attention as Guru Nanak was now getting. 

Fewer than two months later, on January 3, a mob at Nankana Sahib, the birth place of Guru Nanak, gathered outside Gurdwara Janamasthan chanting slogans, threatening to overrun the gurdwara and also changing the name of the city that is known for its association with Guru Nanak.

If that was not bad enough, a Sikh man was shot dead in Peshawar two days later. This was not an isolated incident of violence against the Sikhs in Peshawar, where a couple of years ago Charanjit Singh, a prominent community leader had been assassinated. 

Also read: Explainer | Kartarpur, the Making of a Diplomatic Corridor

How is one to understand and reconcile these two seemingly contrasting events?

While opening of the Kartarpur Corridor and recognition of Guru Nanak on one hand symbolised a turn in the history of Pakistan, which could finally be seen opening up to its Sikh heritage and community, the recent events in Nankana Sahib and Peshawar, challenge this perception. They highlight that Pakistan remains the same, a place where violence against minorities would continue to be experienced. 

While these two events might seem to be poles apart, it is my argument that they are not as contrasting as they might appear to be. What Kartarpur Sahib represented was a state appropriating the Sikh heritage. It was a top down phenomenon that did not necessarily mean that things would change on the ground, as the events in Nankana Sahib underscore. 

In addition, the language of this appropriation is also important.

Imran Khan at the inaugural ceremony at the Kartarpur Gurudwara Complex. Photo: Shome Basu

Imran Khan, the Prime Minister of Pakistan, had said that Kartarpur Sahib was like “Medina for the Sikhs”. The narrative was that this is a Sikh holy shrine that needed preservation so that the Sikh community could come and pay homage here.

This, in fact, has been the narrative that has been promoted over the past decade or so, when many other Sikh gurdwaras have been renovated and opened for religious pilgrimage. 

There is no doubt that on its own, the narrative is important and appreciable. For a state that has for decades defined its identity as Muslim, excluding the other religious identities of this land, this is a big step.

Also read: In Kartarpur, a Reminder That Common Indians and Pakistanis Want Peace

With the state’s interest in the Sikh heritage and the inauguration of the Kartarpur Corridor came an increased interest in Sikhism in mainstream media. For the first time since Partition, Guru Nanak’s verses played on the radio and television channels in Pakistan, and several articles appeared in the vernacular newspapers talking about the life and philosophy of Guru Nanak.

While such coverage of Sufi saints has been a norm, never before in the history of the country has a non-Muslim saint received so much attention.  

However, the problem with this narrative of ‘preserving Sikh heritage for the Sikhs’, is that there is an inherent exclusion in it, that differentiates between Muslim and Sikh heritage, ‘our’ and ‘their’ heritage.

Kartarpur and Guru Nanak, should be accorded respect because they are revered by the Sikhs, not because they represent ‘our’ heritage. Thus, even while it seems that this narrative of preserving non-Muslim heritage is challenging some of the basic assumptions of exclusivist national identity, it is rather building upon the same premise. 

This brings us to the incident at Nankana Sahib, where a mob gathered a few days ago threatening to overrun the gurdwara.

For decades a chauvinistic nationalist narrative has been promoted through the education system, museums, the media, political rhetoric, etc., a narrative premised upon an exclusive Muslim identity, standing in opposition to a non-Muslim Hindu India.

Also read: India Condemns Vandalism at Nankana Sahib, Pak Says It Is ‘Undamaged’

Through these structures, several generations of Pakistan have internalised a particular narrative of Pakistani national identity, which cannot be challenged overnight. 

Appreciable as it is, the inauguration of the Kartarpur Corridor happened without any systematic changes in these structures that continue to promote a particular narrative on national identity.

The renovation and the opening of the Kartarpur gurdwara in this context ends up being an isolated event that has much symbolic significance but devoid of actual long-lasting changes. Till that happens, people like Imran Chishti, the person who led the mob at Nankana Sahib on January 3, would continue to exploit religious sentiment targeting other religions, finding resonance in a society that for decades has been fed a particular narrative on religion and nationalism. 

For now, Chishti has been arrested, another action that needs to be appreciated, for there is also a long history of people exploiting religious sentiments and targeting religious minorities, like him, and getting away with it. But just like Kartarpur Sahib this too would be an isolated event with much symbolic significance without necessarily challenging the structures that continue to produce people like him and this narrative. 

Perhaps a step that would have far reaching consequences would be teaching the philosophy of Guru Nanak in the educational curriculum. This could be further followed by other non-Muslim scholars and philosophers.

The narrative for the preservation and appreciation of non-Muslim heritage needs to move away from ‘Hindu’ and ‘Sikh’ heritage, but rather ‘our’, Pakistani heritage, premised upon a national identity that is inclusive. 

Haroon Khalid is the author of several books including Walking with Nanak and Imagining Lahore