Even amidst strained ties between India and Pakistan, certain linkages have remained intact. One such link is religious pilgrimages of the Sikh community.
Groups of Sikh pilgrims – ‘Jathas’ – coordinated by Sikh bodies from India, visit Pakistan on four occasions, Gurpurab of Guru Nanak Devji (birth anniversary of Guru Nanak Dev), Baisakhi, Shaheedi Purab of Guru Arjan Dev (martyrdom day of Guru Arjun Dev) and the death anniversary of Maharaja Ranjit Singh.
The Shimla Agreement has a provision for the visits of Sikh Jathas on these four occasions. In 1974, both countries signed a visa agreement for providing each other’s citizens access to certain places of religious worship. Indian pilgrims are allowed to visit a total of 18 shrines.
Former Prime Minister, Dr Manmohan Singh during his speech at the inaugural service of the Amritsar-Nankana Sahib bus in March 2006, very rightly stated:
Amidst the endless bickering between the two nation states, two books have sought to highlight the strong connection of the Sikh faith with Pakistan; Amardeep Singh’s Lost Heritage: The Sikh Legacy in Pakistan, and Walking with Nanak by Haroon Khalid, a Pakistani scholar.
Steps Taken for the Promotion of Religious Tourism
Between 2005-2007, a number of initiatives were taken by both governments to strengthen people to people ties between both Punjabs (the Amritsar-Nankana Sahib bus service being one of them).
Apart from easing out visa procedures, and making religious pilgrimages to Nankana Sahib and Panja Saheb less tedious, the Sikh community has also been pitching for a religious corridor between Dera Baba Nanak and Darbar Sahib Narowal, which will help Sikhs in getting visa free access to Kartarpur Sahib, where Guru Nanak Devji spent the last 14 years of his life.
This demand, which had gathered momentum, has been turned down by New Delhi, with the Government of India stating that the current security situation does not permit.
It would be pertinent to point out here that a number of studies published in Pakistan have argued that Pakistan would benefit economically from visits by Hindu and Sikh pilgrims.
Religious Tourism and the Two Punjabs
Given recent tensions between both countries, there have been repeated calls for snapping people to people linkages between both countries. Sikh Jathas have been largely unaffected until recently.
In May 2017, the Sikh Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee (SGPC) had cancelled a Jatha since it received a communication from MEA saying that the former would be responsible for the security of the group (normally MEA takes responsibility).
The SGPC cancelled the Jatha at the last minute. On 8 June, a group of Sikh pilgrims – who had been issued visas for observing the martyrdom
of Guru Arjan Dev – could not travel to Pakistan from Attari since the Sikh Pilgrim Special train did not arrive at Attari. Since the visa was issued for travel on the Pilgrim train, they could not travel by the Samjhauta Express or cross over by land.
On 28 June, 300 pilgrims were to board a special train leaving to commemorate the death anniversary of Maharaja Ranjit Singh. The special train was not allowed to enter Attari.
Sikh pilgrims, who were not just from Punjab but also New Delhi and Haryana, were infuriated and sections of the Pakistani media as well as sections of the Pakistan government did not miss the opportunity to raise this issue adding it up with conspiracy theories.
The Pakistan Sikh Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee (PSGPC) as well as the Pakistan Evacuee Trust Property Board (PETPB) raised Anti-India slogans on 7 July 2017 blaming India for not allowing Sikh pilgrims to visit Pakistan.
Clearing the Air
Whatever the reasons for Sikh Jatha, there must be greater clarity on people to people exchanges, and religious pilgrimages must be given priority by the Government of India.
It is not just a question of religious sensitivities of the Sikhs, but also the fact that pilgrims make preparations for these religious trips months in advance. If the reason for cancelling these Jathas is security, pilgrims should be warned in advance, so that they do not have to face humiliation at the last minute.
The Punjab government, and religious bodies of the Sikhs instead of fighting with each other, should work jointly, and take up the issue of Sikh Jathas being inconvenienced with the Central Governments of both India and Pakistan on priority so that pilgrims do not have to face such inconvenience. Politicians keep on speaking about the cultural commonalities between both countries – especially the Punjabs – yet even religious pilgrims have to encounter such problems!
The well healed do not have any problems in travelling to and fro. In India, sections of the English speaking elite (mostly in New Delhi) whose link with Pakistan is through their time spent in the US or UK, give little importance to important links between both countries such as ‘Jathas’.
While newspapers have covered the issue, one has seen very few opinion or edit pieces highlighting the problems being faced by these Sikh pilgrims.
(Tridivesh Singh Maini is a New Delhi based Foreign Policy Analyst. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)