A Sign Of Easing Tension? India And Pakistan’s Joint Venture To Forge Religious Ties

Under the directives of the Prime Minister of Pakistan, Imran Khan, and Evacuee Trust Property Board (ETPB) Chairman Dr Amir Ahmed, July 3rd witnessed the opening of an ancient Hindu temple in Sialkot in Pakistan’s Punjab province. For the first time in 72 years, Pakistani adherents of Hinduism were granted access to worship in the Shawala Teja Singh Temple. The move follows the government’s announcement in April that they will reclaim and restore 400 temples to the minority group in Pakistan, and compliments a joint decision by Prime Minister Khan and the Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi, to construct the Kartarpur corridor, allowing visa-free access to Hindi pilgrims from India. These actions are symbolic of potential reconciliation efforts on behalf of the two governments to quell ongoing conflict that was sparked during the Partition of India in 1947. A meeting between officials of India and Pakistan is scheduled to take place in Pakistan on 14th July to discuss the opening of the corridor between the two countries.

The All Pakistan Hindu Rights Movement estimates that as many as 408 temples were appropriated after 1990, with some converted to madrassas.

South Asia’s ANI News reported that the deputy secretary of the shrine, Syed Faraz Abbas, and his community had long awaited the opening of the Shawala Teja Singh Temple: “For several years, the Hindu community has been demanding that the temple be opened.”

When asked by Rajdeep Sardesai, Consulting Editor of Indiatoday, what the turning point was for Pakistan’s decision to reopen the temples, and construct the corridor, Fawad Chaudhry, Information Minister of Pakistan, said he believed India and Pakistan had been fighting for too long. “I think there’s a need for it. We have been fighting each other for seven decades, so it’s time to change. If India takes one step, Pakistan will take two steps.”

Hopes for reciprocated intentions on behalf of India were encouraged by comments made by Modi that if the Berlin Wall could come down, the Kartapur corridor could “act as a bridge between the peoples of the two countries”.

The original division of partition was based on districts’ Hindu and Muslim majority populations. It is inevitable that religious reunification and harmony are included in peace negotiations. In a sense, political reconciliation rests on the cracks of previously divisive religious foundations. Mutual suspicion continues to exist between the two countries; India is concerned about potential Pakistani backing of the Khalistanis, a Sikh separatist movement that seeks territorial sovereignty in the Punjab region, while Pakistan fears potential territorial loss in Pakistani-occupied Kashmir that is of value to particular worshippers of Hinduism. Concerns have been portrayed that the rhetoric delivered by either side regarding efforts for a peace agreement are not genuine, but rather attempts to win a ‘perception war’, and in fact the corridor could serve as a tool to gain territorial foothold by opposing separatists. However, the restoration and repossession of ancient temples to the Hindu minority in Pakistan provides greater reason to believe that these efforts could be genuine. At the very least, the recognition and reunification of mutual religious groups is a good starting point for eventual political reconciliation between the two countries.

The partition gave rise to continuing conflict between India and Pakistan, often centred around territorial disputes over the Kashmir region, and has had ongoing effects on both populations. The partition displaced between 10 and 12 million people, and has caused a large (though disputed) amount of deaths, varying between 200 000 and 2 000 000. More recently, an influx of cross-border shelling has led to an increased amount of violations of the cease-fire agreement reached in 2003. In 2017, there were a reported 3000 violations, while in 2018 there were nearly 1000. This year an attack claimed by Pakistani militant group, Jaish-e-Mohammad, killed at least forty Indian soldiers and was the deadliest attack witnessed in Kashmir in three decades. Taking into account that India and Pakistan both possess nuclear weapons, a de-escalation of violence and military confrontation is favourable.

Hopes of further reconciliation are high for the upcoming meeting between officials of India and Pakistan. Despite past failed attempts, perhaps the joint venture of the Kartarpur Corridor, as well as attempts to broker religious harmony, signify the dawn of a process that will attain eventual peace for the two countries. The Tribune India news outlet reported on 5th July that 80 per cent of the corridor is complete, and is set to open on Guru Nanak’s 550th birth anniversary. As quoted by Modi, “When I was the Chief Minister of Gujarat, I ordered to re-construct the sacred place where Guru Nanak’s “padukaon” had been kept. Today, it has become a site of “World Heritage”. With the blessing of Guru Nanak Dev-ji, Kartarpur Corridor is not only a corridor, it also could be a reason to connect people”.



Katherine Everest