Hundreds of Indian Sikhs make historic pilgrimage to Pakistan

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Indian Sikh pilgrims visit the Gurdwara Darbar Sahib in Kartarpur, Pakistan on Nov. 9, 2019. (Reuters)
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Sikh pilgrims gather to wait the site inauguration in front of the Shrine of Baba Guru Nanak Dev at Gurdwara Darbar Sahib, ahead of the ceremony led by Pakistan's Prime Minister Imran Khan in Kartarpur, near the Indian border, on November 9, 2019. (AFP)
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Sikh pilgrims shout slogans as they arrive at the Shrine of Baba Guru Nanak Dev at Gurdwara Darbar Sahib, ahead of the ceremony led by Pakistan's Prime Minister Imran Khan in Kartarpur, near the Indian border, on November 9, 2019. (AFP)
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A visa-free corridor allows Indian Sikhs to visit one of their religion’s holiest sites across the border in Pakistan. (AFP)
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Pakistan's Prime Minister Imran Khan (C) claps after inaugurating the ceremony at the Shrine of Baba Guru Nanak Dev at Gurdwara Darbar Sahib in Kartarpur, near the Indian border, on November 9, 2019. (AFP)
Updated 09 November 2019

Hundreds of Indian Sikhs make historic pilgrimage to Pakistan

  • When Pakistan was carved out of colonial India in 1947, Kartarpur ended up on the western side of the border, while most of the region's Sikhs remained on the other side
  • PM Imran Khan said a day would come "when our relations with India will improve"

KARTARPUR, Pakistan: Hundreds of Indian Sikhs made a historic pilgrimage to Pakistan on Saturday, crossing through a white gate to reach one of their religion's holiest sites, after a landmark deal between the two countries separated by the 1947 partition of the subcontinent.
Cheering Sikhs walked joyfully along the road from Dera Baba Nanak in India towards the new immigration hall that would allow them to pass through a secure land corridor into Pakistan, in a rare example of cooperation between the nuclear-armed countries divided by decades of enmity.
Some fathers ran, carrying their children on their shoulders.




Sikh pilgrims gather to wait the site inauguration in front of the Shrine of Baba Guru Nanak Dev at Gurdwara Darbar Sahib near the Indian border, on November 9, 2019. (AFP)


Buses were waiting on the Pakistani side to carry them along the corridor to the shrine to Sikhism's founder Guru Nanak, which lies in Kartarpur, a small town just four kilometres (2.5 miles) inside Pakistan where he is believed to have died.
"Generally people say that God is everywhere. But this walk feels like I'm going to directly seek blessings from Guru Nanak," Surjit Singh Bajwa told AFP as he walked towards the corridor, crying as he spoke.
At 78, he is older than India and Pakistan, who have fought three wars already and nearly ignited a fourth earlier this year.
For up to 30 million Sikhs around the world, the white-domed shrine is one of their holiest sites.
However for Indian Sikhs, it has remained tantalisingly close - so close they could stand at the border and gaze at its four cupolas - but out-of-reach for decades.
When Pakistan was carved out of colonial India at the end of British rule in 1947, Kartarpur ended up on the western side of the border, while most of the region's Sikhs remained on the other side.
Since then, the perennial state of enmity between India and Pakistan has been a constant barrier to those wanting to visit the temple, known in Sikhism as a gurdwara.
Pilgrims on both sides of the border hoped the corridor might herald a thaw in South Asian tensions.
"When it comes to government-to-government relations, it is all hate and when it comes to people-to-people ties, it's all love," one of the Sikh pilgrims, who did not give his name, told Pakistani state TV as he crossed.
Among the first pilgrims was former Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who told Pakistani state media that it was a "big moment".
The opening even inspired a singular message of gratitude from Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to his Pakistani counterpart Imran Khan for "respecting the sentiments of India".
For his part, Khan said a day would come "when our relations with India will improve".
"I am hopeful that this the beginning," he told the pilgrims at the shrine.
For years India had been asking Pakistan to grant Sikhs access to the shrine.
Many believe it has happened now because of the friendship between Khan, a World Cup winning cricketer-turned politician, and India's Navjot Singh Sidhu - another cricketer-turned-politician.
"When Sidhu asked me to open the border, I kept it in my mind," Khan told devotees Saturday.
He compared the situation to Muslims being able to see holy sites in Madinah, but never visit.




Pakistan's Prime Minister Imran Khan (C) claps after inaugurating the ceremony at the Shrine of Baba Guru Nanak Dev at Gurdwara Darbar Sahib in Kartarpur, near the Indian border, on November 9, 2019. (AFP)


The opening comes just days ahead of the Guru Nanak's 550th birthday on November 12 - an anniversary of huge significance for the global Sikh community, and which may also have played a role in the timing.
Sikhs from around the world have been arriving in Pakistan ahead of the celebrations for days already.
An estimated 7,000 were at the shrine to hear Khan's speech, though it was not clear how many had come via the corridor and how many had arrived from elsewhere. Indian officials said just 700 were expected to cross through the corridor Saturday.
Many were emotional, some in tears. Others posed for selfies before a giant gold- and silver-coloured kirpan, the dagger which Sikhs must carry with them at all times as an article of their faith.
The Sikh faith began in the 15th century in Punjab, a region including Kartarpur which is split today between India and Pakistan, when Guru Nanak began teaching a faith that preached equality.
There are an estimated 20,000 Sikhs left in Pakistan after millions fled to India following the bloody religious violence ignited by partition, which sparked the largest mass migration in human history and led to the death of at least one million people.
"Life is short," said one of the Indian pilgrims, Davinder Singh Wadah.
"Everyone has to go... so why not enjoy life and make this world a heaven, and I think this initiative is the beginning of it."


Indian anti-hate group ‘victim of hate’ after leaders arrested

Updated 26 October 2020

Indian anti-hate group ‘victim of hate’ after leaders arrested

  • Several members detained on charges of inciting deadly religious riots in Delhi

NEW DELHI: A prominent group established three years ago to fight incidents of hate and prejudice against the Muslim minority community in India said on Monday that it is “gasping for breath” after officials detained some of its founding members under the country’s draconian terror law.

The authorities have accused the United Against Hate (UAH) group of inciting religious riots in New Delhi in February this year.

“The platform which has been fighting against religious and communal hate in society has become a victim of hate itself,” Nadeem Khan, 35, one of the founding members of UAH, told Arab News.

“With the detention of some of our founding members and the questioning of a large number of youths, there is a strong sense of fear among people who are part of such a platform,” he said.

Founded in 2017, when incidents of alleged hate crimes against Muslims – on the pretext of selling or consuming beef – were on the rise, the UAH was one of the few nonpolitical groups which played a significant role in mobilizing the masses against the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) which became law in December last year.

While the CAA guarantees citizenship for minority Hindu, Sikh, Jain, Parsi, and Buddhist communities from neighboring Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan, it excludes Muslims.

The CAA is part of the proposed National Register of Citizens (NRC), an exercise aimed at identifying “genuine citizens” of India.

However, many Indians, and not only Muslims, feel that the CAA is discriminatory as any non-Muslim who does not find a mention in the NRC can seek recourse under the citizenship law.

Muslims, on the other hand, would become stateless.

“People, mostly Muslims, across India came on the streets against the CAA, and the UAH was just an agency for creating awareness. But the Indian government did not like the political mobilization of Muslim masses,” Khan said.

Protests against the CAA, which began in late December, surged for months, resulting in the leaders of the ruling Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) launching a counter-campaign. 

The heightened communal tensions led to religious violence in the Indian capital toward the end of February, in which more than 50 people, mostly Muslims, died.

“It was a peaceful and democratic protest against the discriminatory policy of the government. This was our right to protest. But the government is now calling our protest sedition and arrested some of our founding members,” said Khan, who has been questioned by Delhi police in connection with the February riots after being named in the charge sheet.

Other UAH members who felt “the need to respond to such hate crimes through a social platform” include 28-year-old Umar Khalid and 36-year-old Khalid Saifi.

They have since been arrested.

“What was the crime of my husband? When has serving people and fighting for unity and secularism of the country become a crime in this nation?” said Khalid Saifi’s wife, Nargis.

Saifi was detained in February for “inciting religious violence” in New Delhi while Khalid was arrested on September 16 and faces multiple charges.

“This is nothing but an attempt to break the spirit of the people, particularly Muslims, and tell the community that they can live in India like ordinary citizens without raising their political voice,” said Nargis, a mother of three.

More than 600 people have been detained in the Delhi riots’ cases, the majority of them Muslims.

Several rights groups, including Amnesty International, have voiced concerns over the large-scale detentions of activists and students for protesting against the CAA and blamed the BJP government for “crushing democratic dissent.”

On Monday, the president of India’s main opposition Congress party, Sonia Gandhi, attacked the government for stifling protesting voices that it brands as “terrorism” and “anti-national activity.”

“The fundamental right to freedom of expression has been systematically suspended through suppression and intimidation. Dissent is deliberately stifled as terrorism or branded as an anti-national activity,” Gandhi said in an opinion piece published in the leading English daily, the Hindustan Times.

“The Narendra Modi government and the ruling BJP conjure up sinister conspiracies behind every political protest, indeed behind any and everything they see as opposition to them. India’s hard-won democracy is being hollowed out.”

Renowned author and activist Arundhati Roy agrees.

“It is really beyond humiliating to live in this atmosphere where people are funneled and marinated in this hatred. Today, you have a country whose economy is in shreds. People are hungry; people don’t have jobs. Everything is coming apart. But we are held together by a pipeline of hatred, which is funneled by the mainstream media,” she said during a press conference in New Delhi on Thursday.

The BJP denies promoting “hate.”

“We are fighting against hate. We don’t promote an ideology of hate. We can claim to represent India’s real intellectual legacy of Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam (the world is one family),” BJP spokesperson Sudesh Verma said.

He described Gandhi’s article as a piece “written in pangs” as the Congress party’s “ecosystem is collapsing.”

“People are leaving the party. And there is no reprieve for the Gandhi family because the BJP is going to be in power for many more years. We can understand the pangs of the Congress chief,” he said.

Political experts, however, say that the broader aim of the governing party is to “disempower people and make them subjects,” who cannot act independently.

“My understanding is that the criminalization of organizations like UAH is the first step towards disempowering all Indians and turning them into subjects who don’t have their agency of their own,” said analyst Professor Apoorvanand Jha, of Delhi University.