Conundrum of religion for peace and tricky reality for Sikhs – Part 1

Kartarpur Model may be replicable elsewhere as a step to resolve intractable issues, suggests NIRMAL SINGH in this first of a three-part series on the #KartarpurCorridor

Gurdwara Sahib Kartarpur – Photo: Yadvinder Singh
By Nirmal Singh OPINION 

The development started out innocuously in August 2018. Navjot Singh Sidhu, Kapil Dev and Sunil Gavaskar, old cricketing rivals on field and friends off field of Imran Khan, Pakistan Prime Minister elect, got personal invite to his swearing in ceremony. India’s relations with Pakistan were always iffy but at that moment were almost at their lowest. There were calls by BJP that accepting Imran’s invite would be an anti-national act but Sidhu stayed steadfast and accepted the invitation. The news about Pakistani willingness to allow a corridor for visa-less travel to Sikh pilgrims to the Gurdwara Darbar Sahib, Kartarpur came out during that ceremony. After the Pakistan Government’s announcement, the Indian Cabinet approval was prompt[1] and that set the ball rolling.

From the start while Sikhs were happy that their long awaited quest for ease of access was at last likely to get addressed, the reactions saw the announcements by the two governments as a sign of possibility of thaw in Indo-Pak tensions. Even though the political situation continued unevenly, the project kept its pace. Its foundation stone was laid on Indian side on 26th Nov. 2018 and two days later on the Pakistan side. The completed corridor was inaugurated by the two PMs on their respective sides on 9th Nov. 2019 in time for Guru Nanak’s 550th on 12th Nov. 2019.

The Punjab Assembly held a special session on 6th Nov. 2019 to commemorate the 550th birth anniversary of Guru Nanak and the oncoming inauguration of the Kartarpur Corridor. India’s Vice President addressing the session expressed the hope that Kartarpur Corridor will be a shrine of peace, harmony and humanism to contribute to realization of Guru Nanak’s universal vision of world as one family. Dr Manmohan Singh, the former Prime Minister of India, said that “Peace and harmony is the only way forward to ensure a prosperous future. The Kartarpur model may be replicated in the future too as a lasting resolution of conflicts.” [2]

Proceeding from the above contextual frame and taking into account the views and comments as reported by the media, we will try to understand how even when the intent may be laudable and expectations very honorable, there could be complexities that may impede a project like this in attaining either the peace dividend that is hoped by the political class or the promise of religious and cultural fulfillment that the devotees might be seeking. In the process, using a construct of Kartarpur Model as it played out, we will try and develop a more likely replicable model that may be used elsewhere as a step to resolve intractable issues.


Kartarpur, located on the West side of River in Punjab, now in Pakistan, was founded by Guru Nanak and he spent the last 18 years of his life as a householder in that hamlet. As Sikhs moved in to join the community, a sarai was built along with a meeting room for the sangat to gather to listen to kirtan and Guru’s discourses. It was in this city that Guru Nanak gave Lehna the name Angad as he named him his successor. He also handed over a pothi of hymns to Angad. Thus the Kartarpur abode of Guru Nanak became the first centre set up by Sikh Gurus and the sangat there came to epitomize the model for Sikh congregation on which the institutional edifice of the Sikh religious institutions was built by later Gurus.

The Guru’s following was from both Hindu and Muslim faiths and after his passing both claimed him and raised two shrines, separated by a wall, in his memory. Sikh Wiki records that river Ravi washed away the original abode of the Guru and his son, Baba Sri Chand living across Ravi, had ashes of Guru Nanak ‘salvaged and reinterred close to the well of Ajitta Randhava, a devotee of the late Guru, and built a mud hut over it. The place came to be revered as a dehri or samadhi of Guru Nanak around which the present town of Dera Baba Nanak grew.’[3]

Later in 1572, the foundation of the gurudwara in Kartarpur was laid and its dome covered with gold by Maharaja Ranjit Singh. The present structure was built by Bhupinder Singh, Maharaja of Patiala in 1925.[4] During the 1947 partition, the new international boundary placed Kartarpur in Pakistan territory and Dera Baba Nanak in India.

Along with other Gurdwaras left in Pakistan, the Kartarpur Gurdwara remained closed after the divide of 1947. Since Sikhs had started asking for easy access to the Gurdwara, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi promised to approach the Pakistan government for Kartarpur to be made part of India in exchange for land elsewhere. Nothing happened. In 1998 a border opening for transit to Kartarpur was discussed by the PMs Bajpai and Nawaz Sharif of India and Pakistan respectively but no headway was made. Gurdwara however was repaired by the Pakistan government and reopened in September 2004 – after 57 years of being closed.

Kartarpur with a yatree tag – Photo: Kartarpur Travel facebook

Subsequent to the 1947 partition, practically no Sikhs remained in West Punjab and Gurdwaras were left unattended. The loss of some of the most sacred religious sites and important historical and cultural legacy, had caused deep trauma to Sikhs. The Sikh religious leadership decided to memorialize the loss by adding a Para to the text of ritual Sikh supplication [Ardas], seeking the divine blessing for ease of access and opportunity to serve and take care of the holy sites from which Sikhs had been separated [as a result of the partition]. This supplication has been ritually made thousands of times every day by Sikhs across the globe since then.

The lack of access was not an issue prior to 1947 because all the important Sikh sites were in the British jurisdiction and before that these were part of the Sikh Empire under Ranjit Singh. After partition, not only because of en masse exodus of Sikhs particularly from West Punjab but also due to accessibility to Sikhs in India getting severely restricted because the two countries got embroiled in an undeclared war within months of the end of the British rule and this condition has only got worse over time with no signs of any break in their frayed relations.

The tensions led to the Indian intervention that ended up with East Pakistan breaking away and formation of Bangladesh. The hostilities picked up in the 80’s using non state actors cross over into J&K to mobilize local unrest which later turned into more daring terror attacks on targets in India including the Parliament House in New Delhi [2001], Akshardham temple in Gandhidham [2002] and the city of Bombay [2008] by suicide squads. The year 2019 could have been the one of the worst with Indo-Pak tensions hitting a peak. The power play of two unbending contestants brings to mind Guru Nanak’s reflections half a millennium earlier, written during his years at the town of Kartarpur. We are sharing it for its instructive value in conflict situations.


Guru Nanak had witnessed the dissipative ways of ruling elite in contrasting lap of abundance and luxury, unmindful of their responsibilities towards the security of the country and well being of the people. It was in this kind of scenario, during the Guru’s stay at Kartarpur, that Babur had appeared on the Indian horizon as a powerful invader. The Guru witnessed havoc that Babur’s troops unleashed, particularly on the women, who were carried away as war booty. Guru Nanak was deeply touched and penned four compositions, known as ‘Baburvani’ that reflect on the cataclysmic events from the perspective of divine play in an environment of human failings with its effects on society’s peace and harmony[5]  – a scenario that likely can replay in conflict zones if no tangible steps get initiated to catalyze move towards peace.

The Baburvani texts remind us of the conflict types and the import of human response as Guru Nanak then divined by saying:

ਕਰਤਾ ਤੂੰ ਸਭਨਾ ਕਾ ਸੋਈ ॥

ਜੇ ਸਕਤਾ ਸਕਤੇ ਕਉ ਮਾਰੇ ਤਾ ਮਨਿ ਰੋਸੁ ਨ ਹੋਈ ॥੧॥ ਰਹਾਉ ॥

ਸਕਤਾ ਸੀਹੁ ਮਾਰੇ ਪੈ ਵਗੈ ਖਸਮੈ ਸਾ ਪੁਰਸਾਈ ॥

ਰਤਨ ਵਿਗਾੜਿ ਵਿਗੋਏ ਕੁਤੀ ਮੁਇਆ ਸਾਰ ਨ ਕਾਈ ॥

ਆਪੇ ਜੋੜਿ ਵਿਛੋੜੇ ਆਪੇ ਵੇਖੁ ਤੇਰੀ ਵਡਿਆਈ ॥੨॥

karathaa thoo(n) sabhanaa kaa soee jae sakathaa sakathae ko maarae thaa man ros n hoee –rehaao- sakathaa seehu maarae pai vagai khasamaisaa purasaaee  rathan vigaarr vigoeae kutha(n)aee mueiaa saar n kaaee aapae jorr vishhorrae aapae vaekh thaeree vaddiaaee – [extract from Asa M I, p. 360].

In the above text the Guru, invoking the divine attributes of the one shared Creator of all beings, relates two scenarios of conflict – seen by him not as diverse temporal manifestations but as the reflection of different facets of play of the divine will. One type of contest he mentions involves two powerful belligerent parties, and the other where a powerful party attacks and mauls a weak and defenseless opponent.

With our confined motive, we will limit ourselves to a brief discussion of only the first typology that relates to a contest between matched opponents.

Matched Contest Typology

In this scenario where a powerful entity attacks another powerful entity, the Guru is saying:  jae sakathaa sakathae ko maarae thaa man ros n hoee – a succinct yet telling comment on conflict between two saktas – deemed invincible. Significantly this text is part of rehao pankti and thus could be interpreted as the more defining or central character of the societal conflict dynamic between two all powerful adversaries.

The key term sakta is derived from shakti literally meaning power. This term has been used by Guru Nanak for God in his bani and therefore should not suggest judgmental connotation about any party. Within that frame, this typology could apply in two situations: one, at the micro level, when two well endowed saktas contest within the course of a competitive setting. This situation is a common occurrence and invariably does not provoke ros [resentment] to arise and examples of competitors as good friends are not hard to find – Imran Khan and Kapil Dev or Navjot Sidhu coming readily to mind.[6]

The other possibility in this category is the one using destructive means to force the opponent to submit to the more powerful contender. Limiting to confrontation using force to oust adversary community, the 1947 experience on both sides of the border in Punjab can be an example of this typology. It was a bitter fight to avenge the suffering of co-religionists on the other side but the ros dissipated on both sides soon enough and has stayed that way.

Since our quest here is related to the Indo-Pak situation, the tensions between these two nuclear armed adversaries seem to fit the jae saktaa saktae ko maarae typology eminently but is the ros absent here? On the surface if we go by the muscular assertions by the leadership on both sides and the frenzied media fights, the absence of ros would seem a myth.

But it may not be that way. My sense is that both the countries are still to heal from the trauma of 1947 partition, coalesce to a collective vision of national identity and pull the population together as cultured, aspiring, and optimistic and forward looking people and start nation building process in all earnestness. This quest has been getting hampered in both the countries by distracting and damaging effects of continuing conflict. At the people level, therefore, while feelings for security of the nation retain paramount position, peace overtures by the leadership, too, are not decried by the public. Instead as we have seen there is groundswell of support for efforts at creating a thaw in the neighborly relations. These are pointers to the possibility that underlying the drumbeats of jingoistic slogans, there is a longing for the romanticized vision of togetherness associated with the composite culture of this region that can subsume ros of the past memories.


On this hopeful note, we transit to the present and find that the Indo-Pak differences did not ever get close to any resolution. The tensions have been getting aggravated by multiple problems – the main being the Kashmir problem that has been triggering clashes between Indian and Pakistani forces at the LOC in J & K and at a few places across the international borders. Both countries have lived with closed and heavily guarded borders all these decades. Within the two countries, the narrative of tradition inspired invincibility has been conflated with nationalistic pride, which has made accommodation on ideological plane almost impossible.

This is worrisome because both the sides have nuclear arms and establishments that are deeply suspicious of the intent of each other. The Indo-Pak region thus is seen by some security experts as one of the most dangerous conflict zones in the world. Efforts by the UN have not been able to make any headway. Simla agreement, with unabated terror acts, India did not even agree to enter into a dialogue for peace.

Thus while peace has eluded, there is also realization on both sides that full-fledged war between the nuclear powered opponents could lead to massive destruction and yet not resolve differences that separate them. The choices therefore are stark. This state of diminishing hope lies at the back of reasons that make symbolic initiatives like Kartarpur Corridor accord seem like a call from the beyond to the warring neighbors to cool tempers for their own good.

So one does wonder if it may be a play of will divine that in August 2018 during swearing in of Imran Khan, Pakistan Army Chief mentioned in conversation with Sidhu of their willingness to open the Dera Baba Nanak–Kartarpur corridor on 550th birth anniversary of Guru Nanak. The rest is history as all the negatives kept getting out of the way and the Corridor was inaugurated on 9 November 2019, by Prime Ministers of India and Pakistan on their respective sides to the wonder of a still skeptical global community.


We thus see Sikhs wrapped up in the layers of the Indo-Pak matrix as it evolved before and since the creation of Pakistan in 1947. I was 16 when we crossed over to India in late August 1947. It was a traumatic separation but my parents, no doubt nostalgic, talked of old times but never got an opportunity to visit Pakistan. It was hard – not because of just being displaced, that was soon reconstructed but because of a felt loss being Sikhs.

After my visit in 2004 as part of an interfaith group of scholars from the US to grasp emerging phenomenon of Radical Islam, my take on the dilemmas affecting Pakistan-Sikh engagement came round to the view that while there was a need for the Sikhs to engage with Pakistan, the primary focus of Pakistani engagement in the post 9/11 world was and had to be Judeo-Christian West, with India as a secondary focus in view of their continuing low level conflict that was draining both. The Sikh engagement need, which did not seem to concern India, Pakistan or the US, therefore could come in at the tertiary level and given their political position, operate within the constraints set by the primary and the secondary drivers. In my mind there was a clear recognition that proactive Sikh engagement with Pakistan was not an option.

My related inference nonetheless was that Indian Sikhs will always have to be neighbors, across the border, with a vibrant segment of Pakistani Muslims with their worldview and perception of the Sikhs. In the same strain, for Sikhs given their geo-political situation, Muslim world mainly will be Pakistan and the Muslim opinion that may impact them the most would be the Pakistani orientation. As such even though this recognition may not be evident in Sikh thinking, some kind of neighborly engagement should be in their long-term interest.[8]


In the midst of all these developments, is the small unseen Sikh community in Pakistan that is on its way likely to see an increase in their visibility and perhaps far more significantly to enhance their responsible involvement with Pakistan civil society, with the global Sikh community as also with the Pakistani outreach to Sikhs and India.

Sikhs, though now a small minority, prior to 1947 partition, were an important part of region’s community, cultural mosaic and economy. They also had a proud heritage and history in having been dominant political force in 18th and 19th centuries when they set up Sikh rule with Lahore as capital – last to be annexed by the British in 1849.

After partition, Sikh population in Pakistan reduced to a microscopic minority – that too only in the tribal area of Swat. Gurdwaras, including the historical Sikh shrines, were closed down. It was only after an agreement arrived at between the governments of India and Pakistan that Sikh pilgrims from India were able to visit Gurdwaras Janam Asthan, Panja Sahib and Dera Sahib and the Samadh Maharaja Ranjit Singh on birthday of Guru Nanak, Baisakhi, martyrdom day of Guru Arjun and death anniversary of Maharaja Ranjit Singh. The SGPC granthis, sewadars and ragis at gurdwaras Nankana Sahib, Panja Sahib and Dera Sahib before Partition, were also given permission to be posted there to perform religious service but after the 1971 Indo-Pak war, their visas were not renewed by Pakistan Government.

During 1979, a delegation led by Gurcharan Singh Tohra, SGPC president met the President of Pakistan, General Zia-ul-Haq and requested for revival of the practice of posting SGPC staff at the three Gurdwaras. General Zia instead suggested that he was prepared to send Pakistani Sikhs to India for being imparted training in maryada in the Gurdwaras so that they could perform this service on their own. Nothing happened.

General Zia persuaded about 50 Pakistani Sikhs to shift from Swat to Nankana Sahib. Some were employed to assist the Waqf Board to run Gurdwara affairs. Sikh youth were trained in maryada and participated in religious functions organized by visiting Sikh pilgrims and learnt to look after the Sikh shrines in Pakistan. The Sikh population in Nanakana Sahib also grew over time and the Sikh youth in Punjab, with better education, have begun to engage with Pakistani mainstream in diverse fields and getting noticed. Guru Nanak Model School, Nankana Sahib, set up in 1999, has around 150 Sikh students.

Karachi has approximately 2500 Sikhs. Total Sikh population in Sindh is around 6,000. In Balochistan it is close to 2500 and Punjab 5000. In the North West Frontier Province [NWFP], the estimated population of Sikhs is 10,000 including tribal areas. Many Sikhs had moved into NWFP from Afghanistan after Taliban takeover. Total Sikh population in Pakistan is placed at around 20,000.

In the last two decades, some Sikh youth have got College education and six decades after 1947, some firsts have been achieved by them – the first Sikh Lawyer, MBA, Doctor, Army Officer, Police Inspector![9] Many youth follow the traditional hakeem vocation and some are employed as Gurdwara sewadars. They are dispersed and isolated and trying to lift their coming generations out of the poverty and isolation trap

There is a small Pakistani Sikh Diaspora, mainly in the UK & Canada. According to the 2001 census, there were 346 Pakistani Sikhs in the UK. There also is a small Pakistani Sikh expatriate community in the United Arab Emirates. Not much is known about their progress in the Diaspora societies – we have known a sehjdhari Sikh family in Central PA from Sindh, Pakistan.

The Gurdwaras in Pakistan have remained under the control of the Evacuee Trust Property Board [ETPB] that controls all evacuee properties in Pakistan. In April 1999, the ETBP set up Pakistan Sikh Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee [PSGPC] to represent Sikh community, take care of and protect the Sikh holy sites and heritage in Pakistan. PSGPC is not independent nor does it have the wherewithal to be independent. Added to that, SGPC and PSGPC have usual legacy issues, PSGPC disagreed with Akal Takht on Nanakshahi calendar.

In response to the growing tide of global Sikh nostalgia, Pakistan is reopening more Gurdwaras with promises of art galleries and university with very small Pakistani Sikh donations or resource pool. Kartarpur Corridor is addition to those initiatives and would no doubt stretch the extremely scarce Pakistani Sikh resources.


Pakistani Muslims and Sikhs share a lot of nostalgic memories, yet their historical memory of one another was not great. Sikhs envision the Muslim rule as oppressive and unjust. Pakistani historians are candid about jihad against Sikh rule and support given to the British to destabilize the Sikh kingdom.[10] Pakistan continues to downplay its rich Sikh heritage and the memorabilia about Sikh rule in their literature, Museums and historical sites. Pakistani stereotypes for Sikhs are not flattering.

The 1947 division was cumulative outcome of the persistent mistrust between Hindus and Sikhs on one side and Muslims on the other. A collateral effect of the partition seems to have been to free Sikhs from the haunting historical memories of being hunted by Muslim rulers, reducing the underlying Sikh sense of hostility against Muslims. This has helped Sikh interface with Muslims to turn into a neutral mode. Diaspora Punjabi Sikhs and Muslims are rediscovering the bond of Punjabi cultural legacy, pushing the lingering problems of partition into the realm of South Asian regional politics.[11]

Separation trauma experienced by Sikhs in 1947 was more about fracturing of support systems. Its intensity has dissipated as migrant Sikhs rebuilt their lives and social support systems anew. Sikhs declare their faith to have originated in India, follow developments in India with sense of involvement and are dynamically linked with Sikh Religious Institutions which are all based in India. Sikh linkage with India thus has a strong emotional and religious connect. At the same time Sikhs tend to be politically independent minded and make choices as they deem fit without noticeable monolithic tendencies.

India has continued to give entry to returning Persons of Indian Origin [PIO] and those who hold Overseas Citizens of India [OCI] cards, can live and work in India but will not be allowed voting rights till they are naturalized as citizens again. By this concession India has developed a huge Diaspora that has been acting to their advantage.

The Sikh-Pakistan connection is different. Pakistan is the country where Guru Nanak was born and early institutions of Sikh faith were developed. SGGS uses a lot of dialects from those areas. In actual fact, a significant part of heritage of Sikhi and most of the heritage of the Sikh Raj is in Pakistan. Added to this is the resurgent cultural bond of Punjabiyat.



[1] Pakistan Minister Fawad Chaudhry called Indian announcement a “victory of peace”. He said via Twitter “It is a step towards the right direction and we hope such steps will encourage voice of reasons and tranquillity on both sides of the border.”

[2] Read more at:



[5] For a broader treatment of the subject read the paper by the author ‘Decoding Babarvani This 550th’ published in Sikh Review, Special Issue November 2019 or at link

[6] Please see .

[7] July 1972 Simla Agreement by Indira Gandhi and Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, PMs of India and Pakistan, after the 1971 Indo-Pak  conflict that led to formation of Bangladesh, provided that the two countries will resolve issues bilaterally through dialogue. The understanding has failed to deliver as Pakistan continued to support terror attacks and India insisted on no talks until terror activity ceases.

[8] See Nirmal Singh, Searches in Sikhism, Hemkunt, 2008,  Article ‘Societal Peace & Harmony – Sikh Precepts & Some Reflections on Sikh Engagement With Neighboring Pakistan’- pp.151-173, go to pp. 164-67. The paper explores areas for involvement by the Sikhs to support peace initiatives and examines possibility for engagement with Pakistan, the land where Guru Nanak was born, lived and perfected the Sikh thought. A premise examined is as to how Sikhs can develop a unique relationship with Pakistan to be able to continue to celebrate their shared heritage, take care of Sikh holy sites and provide any succor that the small Sikh population in Pakistan may need.

[9] The above description draws on Wikipedia Entries relating to Sikhs in Pakistan and Sikh Wiki entry at link:, in addition to author’s reflections on Sikh interface with Muslims and issues and status of Pakistani Sikhs that find mention in a number of his writings over the last 15 years or so.

[10] For a comprehensive account see: Nirmal Singh, Indo-Pak Amity: A Sikh Perspective in two parts, Sikh Review, Feb and Mar 2005 issues

[11] Ibid [note 3]

[Nirmal Singh has written six Books on Sikhs and Sikhi and several of his Articles have been published in journals like Sikh Review, Journal of Sikh Studies and Comparative Religion, Abstracts of Sikh Sudies [IOSS], Sikhnet News and in the mainstream US news media. Resident in Orlando, he spends considerable time in Delhi.]


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