Tears of joy mingled with expressions of gratitude as Sikhs flocked to a revered gurdwara in Pakistan’s Punjab province over the weekend.
Alongside the festive spirit and the riot of colours that marked the opening of the much-awaited Kartarpur corridor between India and Pakistan, was also a fervent prayer among some of those gathered, that ties between the two neighbours will turn a corner. Their key apprehension was that any spike in tensions between the two countries could impact the corridor that has opened after seven decades of waiting.
The fear is not unfounded: People-to-people ties have almost always been the first casualty of India-Pakistan tensions, with New Delhi and Islamabad cutting off air and overland routes for travel, suspending business links and cultural ties.
Avatar Singh Gill, 70, was one of the many thousands of devotees at the Darbar Sahib Gurdwara in Kartarpur in Pakistan’s Narowal district. Gill, who left India in 1961, said: “This is what many of us have been praying for. For some of us, it has come after a lifetime of prayers. Now the hope is that the corridor will remain open and politics won’t overshadow it."
“Politics", as Gill defined it, refers to tensions between India and Pakistan. Ties are fraught now, especially after India revoked Section 370 to end Kashmir’s special status, infuriating Pakistan. In retaliation, Pakistan cut off trade links and expelled the Indian high commissioner to Pakistan, Ajay Bisaria.
On Saturday, hours after the opening of the Kartarpur corridor, India and Pakistan traded words over the Supreme Court’s Ayodhya judgment. The Pakistani foreign office issued a statement slamming India on its treatment of minorities, while New Delhi, on its part, dismissed the statement and said the court order was an internal matter of India.
Dilip Sinha, a former foreign ministry official in-charge of the Pakistan desk, agreed that it was people-to-people ties—cultural and sporting links, besides business—that have borne the brunt of the ups and downs in India-Pakistan ties. “I would say that pilgrimages are a little more resistant to India-Pakistan tensions" than other links, such as exchanges between political delegations, Sinha said.
Since 2016, when India witnessed a series of terrorist attacks, bilateral sporting links were suspended, and Indian cricket and other teams only play Pakistan at multilateral events, he pointed out. Pakistani singers and actors are not part of Bollywood films any more and there are no exchanges of parliamentary or political delegations. Despite cutting of trade ties and stopping train links with India after tensions rose in August, Islamabad issued visas for Sikh pilgrims to visit shrines, including one at Nankana Sahib where Guru Nanak was born.
Former foreign secretary Kanwal Sibal said that in the past, there have been instances of pilgrims being denied visas or being asked to wait for long periods before their visas were processed. But neither country had recently called off pilgrimages or barred devotees from visiting, he noted.
Kulwant Singh from New Delhi said: “I am of the view that if the corridor was opened despite so much tension between India and Pakistan, Nanakji (Guru Nanak) will find a way to ensure it remains open forever."
Harjeet Kaur, a pilgrim from the US , echoed similar views at Kartarpur: “ Now that leaders of India and Pakistan have come together despite many, many differences to open this corridor, I am sure god will find a way for India and Pakistan to resolve their differences," she said.
Sibal, however, cautioned: “Nothing has happened in India-Pakistan relations in the past few days that indicates any change in the India-Pakistan dynamic."