Chandigarh: Just as Punjabis in general and Sikhs in particular, the world over, were celebrating the opening of the Kartarpur corridor and it was being hailed as the strongest peace move thus far in Indo-Pak relations, fears have been raised in India about the possibility of Pakistan misusing the open access corridor to revive the separatist Khalistan movement in Punjab.
If there are those who see in the Kartarpur corridor a similarity with the ‘fall of the Berlin wall’, an equal number, especially from the strategic circles, say that ‘India has fallen into Pakistan’s trap’. They say the Pakistan army, which pushed for the opening of the long-standing demand of a corridor, and completed the project in double-quick time because it wants to re-ignite the fires of terrorism in Punjab with the help of expatriate radical Sikhs.
That may well be true. But it would be unrealistic to assume that Punjab will soon be inundated with Sikhs who return from Kartarpur with subversive intent. This part of the story does not take into account the deep aversion to Khalistan and terrorist violence that has taken root in the hearts and minds of Sikhs after the unrest which ravaged Punjab in the 80s and 90s.
Consider this: As pilgrims began filing into the historic Kartarpur Gurudwara when it opened for the Sikhs of India, their attention was drawn to a glass-encased bomb – a remnant from the 1971 Indo-Pak war – placed strategically on a pillar. A plaque on it stated:
“Indian Air Force dropped this Bomb during 1971 at Gurdwara Darbar Sahib Sri Kartarpur Sahib with the aim to destroy it. However, this evil design could not be materialised due to blessing of Waheguru Ji (Almighty Allah). The said bomb landed into Sri Khoo Sahib (Sacred Well) and this Darbar Sahib remained unheart (sic). It is pertinent to mention that this is the same sacred well from where Sri Guru Nanak Dev Ji used to get water to irrigate his fields.”
Some stopped to read the words. But Indian journalists reported that most devotees did not take kindly to what they saw as blatant anti-India political propaganda. Devotees from across the globe seemed unanimous in the thought that there should be no ‘dirty politics’ in the name of the Guru. Some even wanted the offending bomb display to be removed. There were also reports of posters of prominent Sikh separatists such as Bhindranwale and Gen Shubeg Singh being put up near the shrine in the days preceding the opening of the corridor. These were removed when India protested.
For millions of Sikhs worldwide, the opening of the Kartarpur corridor is the fulfilment of a long-awaited desire to pay respects at the last resting place of Guru Nanak Dev. Just four kilometres from the border and visible on clear days, the historic shrine was taken away from India in 1947 when a line was drawn to partition the country. For almost seven decades, devotees on the Indian side peered longingly through binoculars at the shimmering gurdwara. To be able to pray and feel the ambience at the holy place is therefore a deeply emotional and reverential experience for all those who are making the pilgrimage today.
So when it is suggested that opening the corridor could pave the way for the return of dark days, most not only scoff at the predictions, but feel the suggestion that Indian Sikhs will fall for Pakistani sponsored propaganda is painful. The average Punjabi is acutely conscious of the political games being played in the name of the Kartarpur corridor and is wary of being drawn into a quagmire that could potentially disturb the route.
Professor Balkar Singh is a respected Sikh scholar and the director of the World Punjabi Centre in Punjabi University, Patiala. He was among the first to walk across the corridor and pay obeisance at Kartarpur. Says he, “It is quite obvious that political entities in India and Pakistan, the Pakistani Army included, are all playing politics in the name of the Kartarpur corridor. The security establishment in Delhi is raising the bogey of Khalistan, and some elements in Pakistan may actually try to foment trouble in ham-handed ways.”
He added that the bottom line is that the community is not in any danger of being misled now. “We have suffered huge losses of life and property in the past. Khalistan has no present and no future, so why will anyone permit those bad days to return?”
This is also why recent attempts by expatriate radical Sikh organisations like the Sikhs for Justice (SFJ), allegedly sponsored by Pakistan’s deep state, to hold a ‘Referendum 2020‘ on seceding from India has not had an impact. SFJ’s posters on a referendum, seen on the Pakistani side for a while, were largely ignored by Indian Sikhs. The separatist Khalistan ideology has few takers in Punjab today. The few fringe organisations who claim to be its proponents are finding it hard to survive in an atmosphere where the very word has become anathema for the majority.
As Gurpreet Singh, president of the Kendri Singh Sabha, points out, “Residual fragments of Khalistanis are not even 1% of the population now. Even at the height of militancy, only about 5% of Sikhs subscribed to the ideology. The talk of reviving the movement is just a bogey drummed up by those who wish to exploit Sikh sentiments for their own politics. To even imagine that patriotic Sikhs will fall for the blatant propaganda being conducted by a section of the Pakistani establishment is hurtful.”
If anything, the desire to keep it going is reason enough for Sikhs to desist from falling for Pakistani propaganda. The fear in Sikh circles today is that the beauty of the gesture from both countries that has come at a rather difficult time in Indo-Pak relations could be marred by the politics over Khalistan. The Sikh world would rather see the shadow of Khalistan far removed from their holy shrines and many are decidedly uncomfortable that pilgrims to other gurdwaras in Pakistan like Nankana Sahib gurdwara and Panja Sahib have been subjected to anti-India propaganda in the past.
“Kartarpur gurdwara should not be allowed to be used as a platform for Khalistani forces because that is not the purpose of this corridor,” said Gurpreet Singh. Voices like his are growing. The use of Sikh religious holy places like the Golden Temple in Amritsar for separatist politics in the past brings up bitter memories of its destruction during Operation Bluestar. Memories that the community has put behind.
In July, India shared with Pakistan its concerns about pro-Khalistan elements promoting anti-India activities in a detailed dossier which listed events between 2016 and 2019 that were orchestrated by Khalistani elements. India pointed out that the four annual Indian Sikh Jathas who visit important gurdwaras in Pakistan every year under a bilateral protocol to visit religious shrines have been regularly subjected to anti-India propaganda during their visit. Former Pak army chief General Mirza Aslam Beg was quoted as having said, “Pakistan army and the government should create trouble for India through Khalistan movement… it is the only way to teach India a lesson.”
But if elements in Pakistan are seeing an opportunity to foment trouble in Indian Punjab through the Kartarpur corridor, Indian politicians are not averse to using it to play with Sikh politics.
One of the first to oppose the Kartarpur corridor is Punjab chief minister Amarinder Singh, heading a Congress government. At the opening ceremony in Dera Baba Nanak, he warned Pakistan against misusing the corridor to “destabilise Punjab“. Many see his opposition to the corridor as an attempt to hold the BJP and the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) responsible for exposing Punjab to trouble.
The political acrimony between the two sides, and its potential implications are being watched with growing unease by the Sikhs. It is well known that one-upmanship between the two parties was one of the reasons for the birth of the terrorist phase in the past and a repeat in any new avatar will be strongly resisted by the community.
Sikh politics is largely that of a minority versus the majority, always a tempting trope for ambitious parties. With the benefit of hindsight, community leaders now want Sikhism to be left alone. Away from the machinations of unscrupulous politicians on both sides of the border. This only means that the onus of maintaining the sanctity of the Kartarpur corridor and allowing the initiative to thrive and grow in a conducive atmosphere lies with responsible elements in both India and Pakistan.
Chander Suta Dogra is a journalist and author.