Islamabad’s decision to create a corridor for Sikh pilgrims from India to walk unhindered to the sacred spot in Pakistan, less than 4 km from the Indo-Pak border, where Guru Nanak is said to have breathed his last in the year 1539, is more than a welcome gesture.
Anyone even mildly aware of the Muslim-Sikh clashes that besmirched the 1947 partition of Punjab, and of the subsequent trajectory of Indo-Pak relations, would find the news hard to believe.
Also surprising was a revelation that the former Norwegian Prime Minister, Kjell Bondevik, has just visited Kashmir’s divided parts and conferred with separatist Kashmiri leaders. As of writing the government of India has neither acknowledged nor criticized Mr. Bondevik’s unexpected foray.
Are both New Delhi and Islamabad testing the waters for steps towards an accord? Let’s wait for evidence one way or the other. It’s hard to know what leaders plan to do when they remain mute on critical questions.
However, there is considerable potential in Prime Minister Imran Khan’s gesture of a pilgrims’ corridor, and I welcome the fact that the governments of India and of India’s Punjab state are cooperating in its construction.
‘The country across the border is not as horrible as we thought’ is bound to be the reaction of Sikhs who make a pilgrimage that seemed so unlikely only yesterday. A human heart thus surprised, lightened and touched may befriend, forgive, reconcile. It may construct a new future.
Steps of befriending, forgiving and reconciling are needed between Indians and Pakistanis, between Indian and Indian, and between Pakistani and Pakistani. Between Muslim and Sikh, between Hindu and Muslim, between Sikh and Hindu – as also between Sikhs, between Muslims, and between Hindus.
Sliding into one’s own tribe is an easy and some ways natural phenomenon that the world has increasingly seen in recent years, a response, among other things, to the pace of change around us. It’s also a response greatly simplified by the ease of joining a chat-club of think-alikes, speak-alikes and hate-alikes.
A disturbing article by Rajeev Khanna in The Wire(27 November) points to recent incidents in Punjab where apparently radical or fundamentalist Sikhs have targeted Hindus, Christians and outside-the-mainline Sikhs.
The targeting by extremists in Pakistan of that country’s Christian and Hindu minorities and dissenting Muslims is widely known. The targeting of India’s Dalits, Muslims and Christians by Hindu extremists is also well known, as is the apparent refusal of the Indian state to do much or anything about it. A revival of Sikh radicalism in Indian Punjab would for many be an unanticipated sad reality.
Sikhs are close to 2 percent of India’s population, Christians about 2.5 percent, Muslims just under 15. Dalits (who despite the knocks they take seem generally to see themselves as Hindus and are so seen by others) may amount to 18 percent, and the Adivasis (usually in a similar relationship with Hinduism) around 8 percent. These are not huge percentages, but India’s population is about 1.3 billion.
If Adivasi militancy is noticeable in a few places, India’s Muslims and Dalits have mostly remained quiet. But forbearance may not be limitless.
I write these lines to indicate the range of places where gestures of understanding and reaching out are needed.
May all of us, wherever we are and whoever we are – citizen, bureaucrat, policeman, politician, whatever -- be open to take a simple step that eases another’s journey on the corridors and foot-paths of our world.
Well done, Imran Khan. Your next steps will be watched with interest.