Guru Nanak obtained enlightenment at a moment of great spiritual churn in India.
The 550th birth anniversary of Guru Nanak (1469-1539) kicks off on November 9, three days before the regular pilgrimage, with a high-level Indian delegation traversing the Kartarpur Corridor, consisting of 500-odd handpicked pilgrims. Among them are former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, some Sikh members of the Union Cabinet, Punjab CM Amarinder Singh and his Cabinet colleagues, as indeed the Badal family. The lone outlier is former minister Navjot Singh Sidhu, invited by Pakistani PM Imran Khan. Reviled by right-wing opinion as a Pakistani stooge, his popularity among the Sikh masses, especially in Punjab, is high as he is seen as having obtained Pakistani agreement to the long-standing demand for the direct link to Kartarpur, 6 km from India’s Dera Baba Nanak and even closer from the border.
Although Pakistan had floated the idea during Imran Khan’s swearing-in when Navjot Sidhu and Pakistan’s Army chief Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa had publicly hugged each other, it picked up pace after India’s parliamentary election. Despite the military confrontation and relentless Pakistan-bashing by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his party before the election, the corridor proposal stayed afloat. Both sides started building infrastructure while they haggled over details like the entry fee. It even survived the August 5 scrapping by India of Article 370 and the special status to Jammu and Kashmir, and the state’s division and downgrading into two new Union territories. Pakistan reacted with ire by first attempting unsuccessfully to involve the UN Security Council and then, equally futilely, the UN Human Rights Council.
But Pakistan continued forward progress on the corridor. Logically, this meant Pakistan saw some strategic benefit. It is unlikely that the shrinking group of peace-seekers in Pakistan influenced the decision for better India-Pakistan relations. Pakistan’s behaviour has been at variance with this assumption. They used drones to drop weapons in Punjab, and more openly created convergence between the “Khalistan” proponents in Britain, the United States and Canada, preparing for a Referendum 2020 on Khalistan next year, with the Pakistani diaspora agitating over Kashmir. The unprecedented mob attack on the Indian high commission in London demonstrated new street violence masquerading as a political protest. Pakistan has also managed to open political fractures in Indian Punjab between the Congress and the Akali Dal-BJP, as shown by two separate functions organised by state and Union governments near Dera Baba Nanak.
Guru Nanak obtained enlightenment at a moment of great spiritual churn in India. His extensive journeys, over three decades, with short breaks at home, took him in the north to Nepal and perhaps even Tibet, in the east to Varanasi, Assam and then south via Puri to Sri Lanka. In the west, he travelled extensively in today’s Pakistan and then onto Mecca and perhaps Baghdad. These travels allowed him not only to spread his message, but also debate and share with other sources of spiritual enlightenment in an era beset by bigotry, ritualism and superstition. In Pakpattan, seat of the Chisti order of Sufism, he met Sheikh Ibrahim, then occupant of the spiritual seat of Baba Farid, who lived two centuries earlier. Sheikh was so impressed that he shared Baba Farid’s old sayings and writings. As a result the Guru Granth Sahib, the holy book of the Sikhs, contains four shabads and 112 shaloks of Baba Farid. The Granth Sahib has hymns of six gurus and 36 mystic saints, including those from lower castes and Islam.
The new order which Guru Nanak envisioned went beyond mere self-abnegation or detachment of Sufi saints. Good human existence he likened to a lotus flower, blooming amid dirty water. Jappji Sahib’s line captures this vision -- vin gunn keete bhagat na hoye (You cannot be a devotee without good deeds). By a historical coincidence, Martin Luther (1483-1546), the founder of Protestantism, who questioned the degeneration of the Roman Catholic Church, was Guru Nanak’s contemporary in Europe. He preached that the Bible was the sole means and only God, and not human priests, could grant salvation. Like Guru Nanak, accompanied always by his rabab-playing companion Mardana, Martin Luther introduced hymn singing in churches. Marrying a nun, Luther further defied the division between spiritual and ecclesiastical, much as Guru Nanak preached against fasting, self-flagellation and the separation of religion from everyday life.
Why then is the Kartarpur pilgrimage projected as vital for the spiritual needs of Sikhs? Unlike Islam, where the Hajj or pilgrimage to Mecca is prescribed as one of five pillars of faith, or in Hinduism which lays down bathing in holy rivers, especially on important religious occasions, as critical to the spiritual life of Hindus, Sikhism decries pilgrimages. On page 75 of the Granth Sahib is the line: “Pilgrimages, fasts, purification and self-discipline are of no use… nor are rituals, religious ceremonies or empty worship….”. This theme is repeated elsewhere, as indeed reflected in the lives of the gurus who followed. Pakistan has multiple gurdwaras marking Guru Nanak’s life, but two are important pilgrim centres. At Nankana Sahib near Lahore, Guru Nanak was born, and at Panja Sahib, past Islamabad en route Peshawar at Hasanabdal, a rock exists with his claimed palm print, from which flows spring water. But Kartarpur is where he spent the last 18 years of his earthly journey, preaching and living by his code of worship and a life of giving and sharing.
The Kartarpur Corridor can be a bridge for better India-Pakistan relations if Pakistan does not allow the separatist Khalistani elements from the Sikh diaspora to politicise an important pilgrim centre. The possibility also exists that access in future may be made contingent on the state of bilateral relations. Even more worrisome is Pakistan playing with Sikh sentiments and using the corridor to create a rift between Sikhs and Hindutva elements running the Union government. Meanwhile, the Centre is enabling its allies like the Akali Dal to recover political space they lost after the Granth burning controversy, into which their complicity is under investigation.
Capt. Amarinder Singh, the chief minister of Punjab, is both pleasing Sikh sentiments but also keeping his Hindu votebank intact by periodically berating Pakistan. Navjot Singh Sidhu, isolated in the Congress, wants to burnish his popularity among the Sikh masses and potentially challenge Amarinder Singh, in the Congress or outside. Lost in the din is the Guru’s message of inter-faith amity and moral existence, ever more relevant during these times of global sectarianism and diminished humanism.