The Making of a Non-Issue

Gurudawara Kartarpur Sahib in Pakistan
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A corridor for Sikh pilgrims to visit Pakistan is not a national priority

INDIAN POLITICIANS HAVE a knack for creating a controversy where none exists. One ongoing example is that of Punjab minister Navjot Singh Sidhu and his demand that India take up the suggestion of a cross-border ‘corridor’ for Sikh pilgrims to visit a shrine in Pakistan visa-free. It all began last month when Sidhu, a former cricketer, visited Pakistan for the swearing in of Imran Khan as that country’s new Prime Minister. At that event, Sidhu was seen hugging Pakistan’s army chief Qamar Javed Bajwa. On his return to India, he claimed that Pakistan was open to talks with India to open such a corridor for Sikhs to visit Kartarpur Sahib, a gurdwara built at the place where the religion’s founder Guru Nanak died.

Kartarpur Sahib is around 6 km from the Indian city of Dera Baba Nanak. On September 19th, Pakistan denied that there was any sort of formal communication with India on the subject. Just a few days ago, Sidhu had met with the Minister for External Affairs Sushma Swaraj and had been allegedly reprimanded for raking up the issue. It is a fact that the usually outspoken Sidhu had indeed made this an issue. Later, he claimed that people were simply trying to politicise what was essentially a religious matter.

Two things stand out in this controversy. One, above all, this is a matter for the governments of India and Pakistan to decide and does not lie in the domain of a provincial minister, whatever his feelings on it may be. Two, while the issue has been pending for a long time, in recent years no one from the Sikh community or civil society in Punjab has raised it. Only Sidhu has.

Much of this has to do with the increasingly religious tenor of politics in Punjab in recent years. The Congress, which Sidhu joined after leaving the BJP, has steered clear of this kind of politics after burning its hands in the 1980s. Sidhu is the first Congress leader of recent vintage to dabble in this form of politics in Punjab. His rivals in the Shiromani Akali Dal, the erstwhile ruling party of the state, have been quick to train their guns on him. Ironically, there has been a kind of role reversal here: the Akalis have said that what Sidhu did in Pakistan was distasteful as Indian soldiers were being killed by Pakistan on the border. They have kept religion out of the picture for a change.