The Uncertainty of West Punjabi Pilgrimage

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Introduction to Sikhism

Punjab was a united nation until 1947 when the partition divided the Indian subcontinent along religious lines. The borders drawn by religious division had a detrimental impact on Punjab, which was forced to be split and governed by two different countries. The separation of Punjab has a devastating effect on millions of Sikhs, especially Sikhs who migrated to India by the end of the partition, who suddenly experienced a loss of access to historically and culturally sacred spaces. Although pilgrimage is allowed in Pakistan, it is only for four times a year. While there are plans to create a corridor in between Pakistan and India to facilitate pilgrimage, it seems like with all Sikh affairs, it’s muddle in Indo-Pakistani tensions that seem to constantly hinder efforts Sikh pilgrimage. Hence while the Kartarpur Corridor looks like an act of peace from the outside, from the inside it just looks like a repetition of history that has always been impeded by Indo-Pakistani relations.

The British-Indian census reports were the main documents that provided information to colonial authorities about India. It provided statistics about the wider Indian public, but in doing so it created categories that altered Indian identity, creating competing categories and ultimately ended up being “catalyst for change” as it was a “crucial point of interaction between the British-India government and its subjects” (Jones 74). The British-Indian census initial goal was to gather statistical information in order to document poverty rates that the poor relief, and the “over population decline due to war or disease” (Jones 75). At the beginning, the statistics were mainly focused on poverty, population increase and decrease and the necessity of poor relief (Jones 76). During 1801 to 1931, the census steadily included more information, although the original emphasis remained the same. The origins of the census in India began during the first half of the 19th century when the foreign government actively gathered information on the territory and its subjects in order to better learn and exploit the property (Jones 77). While the British census didn’t really touch religion, the Indian one used religion as one of its central classifications.

The first Indian census taken in 1853 of the North-western provinces was “crude and simple,” with the only two categories being Hindus and Muslims, with caste and occupation being added in the next census conducted in 1872 (Jones 78-79). This simplistic model also appeared in the census of Punjab conducted in 1868. As the census evolved, not only did the census become more elaborate but it also expanded it reports and statistic on religion, with the second Punjab census including seven categories or religion instead of two: Christians, Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains and others (Jones 79). The census was marred with categorization difficulties from the beginning, with Sikhs being considered as Hindus in the first Punjab census, and with the debate of whether the untouchables should be included within the Hinduism category. Sikhism being listed in the census provided an official recognition of the religion because it means that the official government is recognizing its existence and importance (Jones 84).

Overtime, these religious groups would also look towards the census as “record of their own success or failure” (Jones 84). The census furthered the tension between different religious groups, with newly English elites merging and competing with members of other religious communities for elite posts that promised wealth. Hindus held most of these elite positions but they had growing anxiety because their numbers were decreasing as Christians and Muslims were converting Hindus in large amounts, and Hinduism doesn’t have a solid system for conversion. Additionally, power comes in numbers and if more and more people convert to other religions, and more of those people enter elite jobs that consists of power and wealth, then the elite Hindus slowly lose their influence in India which was a major concern (Jones 85). Hence the census becomes a “bureaucratic institutions tied to the distribution of political power and government patronage” with both Hindus and Muslims linking data to their fears and biases, creating a legitimized backdrop against unfounded fears that resulted in a long lasting impact that affected the “conceptualizations of religion, of community, and of self, plus the relations of all these to the state (Jones 100-101). Hence when 1945 came, the Indian subcontinent was separated quite abruptly by religious lines. In February 1947, the British government announces that it will hand over power to Indian by June 1948, but then Lord Mountbatten came to India as the Last Viceroy and decided to speed the process up with his 3rd June Plan announced, which decided that India would be separated amongst religious lines, Hindu and Muslim. Consequentially, Bengal and Punjab would be divided by religious lines instead of by ethnic lines, effectively splitting two communities in half (Brass 74).

Hence partition occurred between August 14 and August 15, more than the year that was promised, with 18 million people displaced and around 250 000 to 1000 000 deaths (Pinkney ppt). Punjab was divided between India and Pakistan, right between the two most important cities in Sikhism, Lahore and Amritsar, with most of it residing within the Pakistani border, with most Sikh pilgrimage sites located in Pakistan, with Guru Nanak being born in Lahore. This separation from sacred sites was devastating for Sikhs, and they have longed to go back to these sites for decades. However, religious travel between the country prove to be a difficult task.

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With partition came a significant loss for Sikhs of their homeland that was now part of Pakistan, a Muslim majority country. Sikhs didn’t have a homeland with government autonomy since they were forced to choose between India and Pakistan and, as a result, Sikhs became a minority in both countries. Lahore, located in West Punjab, Pakistan, held a fundamental place in Sikh history and heritage as it included Nanakana Sahib, which is “a complex of buildings encompassing about seven historical gurdwaras in Sheikhupura including the birthplace of Guru Nanak” (Singh & Fair 254). These gurdwara served as centers of community, they are “a knowledgeable guide for those seeking knowledge of the soul, a clinic for patients, a place where the hungry can be fed, a place where women can maintain dignity, and a rest house for traveller” (Singh & Fair 254). Yet the most sacred of these spaces for the Sikh Punjabi community are now barred for millions of Sikhs, yet the pain that is so pronounced for Indian Sikhs just because so much was lost, yet what was lost is so close in proximity, easily accessed if it wasn’t for the border. The loss of historically sacred space is even canonized within Sikh tradition through the morning prayer known as Ardas. “O Immortal One, always a helper of the Panth! Give your Panth the gift of free darshan and an opportunity to serve Sri Nankana Sahib and other gurdwaras and places of the guru from which the Panth has been separated” (Ardas 156)

The “other gurdwaras and places […] from which the Panth has been separated” signifies the Sikh temples in Pakistan, those that have been lost during the Partition. The event was so great and traumatic that is has been included in Sikh prayer because it was such an alteration to Sikh sacred space and consciousness, to the point that every Sikh in the world, including Sikhs who live in Pakistan, recites the prayer, emphasizing the level of trauma that is felt equally on both sides of Punjab despite being separated by a border for decades (Singh & Faith 257).

The specific sites that are taken care of in Pakistan are Gurdwara Dera Sahib, located in Lahore, Gurdwara Panja Sahib, located in Hasan Abdal, and the seven gurdwaras in Nanakana Sahib (Singh & Faith 257). Many other Sikhs sacred spaces that aren’t prioritized by the Paskistani government have been abandoned in the post-partition era, “They neither have copies of scripture installed within them nor individuals or communities living in their vicinity who worship there” (Singh & Faith 261). Some are used as high schools like Gurdwara Nanaksar and Gurdwara Bazaar, some hold illegal residents like Gurdwara Guru Ka Koth (Singh & Faith 261-262). Gurdwaras of historical significance like Gurdwara Tibba Nanaksa where Guru Nanak met Sheikh Ibrahim, a descendent of Baba Farid Ganj-i-Shakar, who was a famous Punjabi Sufi Saint, where Guru Nanak wrote down the verses of Baba Farid, which are included in the Guru Granth Sahib, and where beautiful rare Gurmukhi scripts have been etched on the walls has not been kept in shape at all, “the gurdwara building has been turned into a working barn where buffaloes and goats are being raised. Half the ceiling […] has fallen and the rare Gurmukhi inscriptions seem to be slowly chipping off the walls” (Singh & Faith 262).

Over the years, there have been many efforts worldwide by Sikhs who have campaigned to win official Sanction from the Pakistani government to have fair access to their sacred place. From 1948 to 1975, a very low number of Sikhs from India were able to attaint permission from Pakistan to visit Sikh sacred spaced because there was an extremely restrictive arrangement between Pakistan and Indian at the time (Singh & Fair 256). However, in 1974, the “1974 Protocol Constituting an Agreement between the Government of India and the Government of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan on Visit to Religious Shrines” was created that allowed a larger number of pilgrims to visit their historical and sacred places in Pakistan (Singh & Fair 256). Although this protocol was a step above the protocol pre-1974, it was still fairly restrictive;

“Sikh pilgrims from India are allowed to travel to Pakistan four times a year to mark important Sikh commemorations. In total, Pakistan has agreed to issue 7,500 visas to Sikhs from India and facilitate three Hindu pilgrimages constituting a total of 800 pilgrims annually. On its part, India has agreed to allow 1,350 Muslim pilgrims from Pakistan to perform five pilgrimages. The actual number of visas issued each year is affected by cross-border tensions.” (Sevea 2). This new revision allowed for Sikhs to maintain religious worship, although the number of Indian Sikhs that can visit is limited significant especially since there are 27.7 million Sikhs residing in India. Additionally, the amount of times they visit are limited, as they can only visit during the birth anniversary of Guru Nanak during November, Vaisakhi, which marks the formation of the Khalsa, during the month of April, the martyrdom of Guru Arjan and the birth Anniversary of Maharaj Ranjit Singh (Singh & Fair 257).

In November 2018, the Indian and Pakistani government have agreed to create a corridor across the Ravi river which would link the gurdwara Dera Baba Nanak in India with the gurdwara Darbar Kartarpur Sahib in Pakistan. This initiative claims to be “in line with Islamic principles that advocated respect for all religions and Pakistan’s policy of promoting interfaith harmony and religious tolerance” (Yousaf 2019). However, there are underlying motives that aren’t so virtuous, such as Pakistan’s need for a somewhat stable relationship with India after an increase in terrorists’ incidents in Jammu and Kashmir since 2014, and India’s need for Sikh voters for, at the time, the upcoming elections in Punjab. There have been a few concerns over this corridor, with the Chief Minister in Punjab expressing his frustration over the lack of funds given to even starts the construction of the corridor, and the press voicing their concerns over security considering the militant past of Sikhs and the on-going unstable conditions in Jammu and Kashmir (Singh 10). On Pakistan’s side, they submitted 59-page document to India in which they appear to be “reinventing the old security structures which militate against the free movement of pilgrims” (Singh 10). Some of these recommendations include “groups visits by pilgrims with a minimum of 15 person per groups; a maximum of 500 visitors a day; a special permit to be issued to visitors by the Government of Pakistan; the list of visitors to be communicated to Pakistan three days in advance of any visits; all visitors to carry and India passport” and “all visitors would be required to obtain a security clearance certificate from Indian authorities” (Singh 10-11). This need for control over sacred spaces comes from the need to control the religious minority and “continue to be marginalized in the region that form the core component of the Pakistan space” (Talbot 73). There is a reason they focus on religious harmony rather than the Punjabi ethnic identity to improve cultural exchange, it’s to keep the marginalized down by lowering their numbers. On the Indian side, no travel proposals have been made for those wanting to visit gurdwara Dera Baba Nanak. However, they’re stance on the whole initiative is still embedded with the “post-1947 construction of religious minorities as communities of culture, without any claims on public space or institutions,” with the BJP party actively endorsing Hinduism as the perfect public religion, while religions like Christianity and Sikhism are seen as to be private out of site (Kim 357; Embree 113). Even more recently, the BJP, in an effort to promote Hindu nationalism, have tried to portray Sikhism as an assimilated of Hinduism (Singh 13). Pakistan’s issues with Sikhs is that they view Sikhism as a separatist threat in which Punjab can be pulled away from Pakistan, hence their resistance towards any open conversation to the tolerance of minorities. Similarly, India cannot let go of the image of the militant Sikh terrorist, which is only backed up by the fact since they’re in between borders of both countries, their loyalty is questioned (Singh 13). Hence the promise of the Kartarpur corridor may look good in theory, but in practice it lives in tangent with the constant reality of the unstable nature of the Indo-Pakistan relationship.

Due to Lord Mountbatten’s decision to speed up the process of separation within the Indian subcontinent, Pakistan and India were created based on religious statistic rather than ethnic identities, which consequently led to a split in Punjab. The political tension between India and Pakistan has made it difficult for Indian Sikhs to visit important pilgrimage sites in Pakistan post-1947. While the introduction of the Kartarpur promises a lot of hope for the future of Sikh pilgrimage, very little is actually being done to implement long lasting change. Instead, past policies that limit Sikh mobility seem to repeat themselves in the Katarpur corridor negotiations. More needs to be done, more funding needs to be provided and more open conversation about the Sikh people needs to be promoted in order for Sikhs to be able to rightfully visit their sacred spaces without the impediments of prejudice and Indo-Pakistani politics.

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