*The Kartarpur Corridor:  Sikhism and the Power of In-Betweenness

 (This is a slightly revised and somewhat longer version of a piece first published at ABP Live on 26 November 2018: https://www.abplive.in/blog/the-kartarpur-corridor-sikhism-and-the-power-of-in-betweenness)

The proposed establishment of a corridor that would link Dera Babak Nanak, an important Sikh pilgrimage site on the Indian side which nearly straddles the border, to Kartarpur Sahib, which is about 3 kilometres into Pakistan from the border and one of the principal sites associated with Sikhism, is not merely a step in the right direction.  It has always been a struggle for the two countries to find openings for dialogues, and the Kartarpur Corridor, if it comes to fruition, would likely be, as commentators in both countries realize, one of the greatest measures taken to bring some semblance of peace and civility in the relations between Pakistan and India.  In this respect, the Kartarpur Corridor may seem to take its place alongside Indo-Pak Bus Diplomacy, the Samjhauta Express, and various so-called “confidence-building” measures.

Kartapur Sahib

Kartarpur Sahib. Source: Live Mint.

The critical significance of such a gesture cannot be overestimated, but the reasons for this are more complex than is commonly imagined.  To gauge the vital importance of this proposed measure, it is best to begin with a brief narrative of the place of Kartarpur in Guru Nanak’s life and the onerous burdens that, centuries later, partition placed particularly on the Sikhs in the Punjab.  Nanak traveled widely in his time, as far away as Mecca:  he was at heart an itinerant preacher.  His extensive travels over a period of nearly three decades ceased when he settled down at a spot on the Ravi above Lahore.  Here, as elsewhere, so the tradition says, Nanak first met with opposition from a wealthy landlord, Karoria, who was initially rattled not only by Nanak’s teachings but by his ability to draw to himself people from ordinary walks of life.  When, and so the hagiographies say, Karoria got on his horse in an attempt to see what he could do to contain Nanak, he fell down from his horse and broke a limb; on a second occasion, the horse wouldn’t budge.  After these mishaps, Karoria naturally—what else, if not naturally—came to the awareness that Nanak was a divine being.  The convert Karoria now offered to build a village for Nanak and his disciples and it is at Nanak’s urging that this village became known as Kartarpur, after the word ‘Kartar’ meaning the creator.  The township flourished as Nanak acquired an ever greater following and it is here that, eighteen years later, he passed away in September 1539.  The Gurdwara Darbar Sahib Kartarpur that stands there presently is said to have been built at the site where Guru Nanak breathed his last.


Guru Nanak, the Itinerant Preacher:  Returning from Udasis.

Whatever the Sikh aspirations for their own homeland, the partition of 1947 was particularly hard on the Sikhs, the vast majority of whom opted to settle in India. Kartarpur is one among many vitally important sites of Sikh religion and history, among them Nankana Sahib, the birthplace of Nanak, the shrine of Guru Arjan Dev in Lahore, and the samadhi (also in Lahore) of Ranjit Singh, that became largely inaccessible to Indian Sikhs.  In 1974, Pakistan and India signed a Protocol on Visits to Religious Shrines to facilitate the granting of visas to pilgrims, but the brute fact remains that the draconian visa regime followed by both countries has made sites such as Kartarpur all but out of bounds for most pilgrims.  Though Dera Nanak Sahib is, as I have pointed out, important in Sikh history in its own right, nothing could be more poignant than the fact that it is also a destination for pilgrims who from its precincts can see the Gurdwara at Kartarpur, the final resting place of Guru Nanak, and thereby also get a darshan of the great founder of their faith:  if I may indulge in a cliche, so close and yet so distant.


Delhi-Lahore-Delhi Bus Service.  Source:  India Today.

It is sign of the pettiness of the governments of both India and Pakistan, and their sheer incapacity to understand the extraordinary and distinct significance of the Sikh faith, that both countries are now squabbling about who first initiated the idea of the Kartarpur Corridor and should thus be able to claim political mileage.  The Modi Government timed the announcement to coincide with the 550th birth anniversary celebrations of Guru Nanak, who was born on 23 November 1469.  India, the announcement says, “approached and urged the Pakistan government to recognise the sentiments of Sikh community and build a corridor with suitable facilities in their territory to facilitate easy and smooth visits of pilgrims from India”, but Pakistan’s Information & Broadcasting Minister Chaudhry Fawad Hussain tweeted that “this proposal was initiated by Pakistan.”  Indeed, Mr. Hussain has argued that the Pakistan Army Chief “spoke about the opening of the Kartarpur border for the first time.  It’s a matter of record.”

Though it is predictable that each government should attempt to lay claim to this initiative, by far its greater import is that Sikhism occupies a space of in-betweenness with respect to Hinduism and Islam.  At his death, Hindus and Muslims quarreled over the performance of the last rites, thus furnishing testimony that they had barely understood his teachings.  They may have acknowledged him as a saint—“To the Hindu a Guru, to the Mussulman a Pir”—but to the end they insisted on viewing him from the perspective of their faith.  Thus the Hindus sought a cremation for Nanak, while the Muslims a burial: when they tugged at the sheet that covered his body, they found a heap of flowers.  The Guru Granth Sahib, for those who recognize the holy book of Sikhism, draws upon elements from both Islam and the worldview of Hinduism.

For students of “religion”, one of the perennially interesting questions is to ponder over what is common and what is distinct in each faith.  The distinctiveness of Sikhism resides in its quality of in-betweenness, in the particular manner in which Sikhs straddle several worlds both in the material and spiritual domains.  As a people, Sikhs have been energetic, generous, and marvelously receptive and adaptive to new cultures.  Any political initiative that holds out the promise of improving relations between Pakistan and India, and strengthening the ties between the peoples of the two countries, is to be welcomed.  But in all such measures, Sikhs have a special role to play, if only they—and the governments of the two countries—would recognize that.  The Sikhs are themselves, if I may put it this way, a corridor between Muslims and Hindus.  One hopes that the Kartarpur Corridor, if at all it should become a reality, will push the Sikhs to play a greater role in mediating peace between India and Pakistan.

16 thoughts on “*The Kartarpur Corridor:  Sikhism and the Power of In-Betweenness

  1. Thanks sir. It gave a good insight on the importance of the bilateral initiative by Indian and Pakistani govt. It was really thorough and comprehensible. Now I don’t have to open a thick book to understand the issue.


  2. “ Thus the Hindus sought a cremation for Nanak, while the Muslims a burial: when they tugged at the sheet that covered his body, they found a heap of flowers.”

    This coincides with the story of Kabir Das as well.


    • I don’t understand this comment at all. Everything in my article suggests the contrary, namely that I greatly respect the Sikh religion and what it can contribute to India. I urge the person who wrote this comment to re-read my piece.


  3. Hello professor,
    I think the Sikhs play an important role in enhancing peace between India and Pakistan. Coincidentally, the Sikhs also connect Hinduism and Islam. The governments of India and Pakistan should realize the role of Sikhs in the region and establish a corridor. However, the two governments might be considering the fact that a lot of people might move across the countries. I think the governments of India and Pakistan should solely consider how peace can be enhanced in the region. The Sikhs in India would want to visit Kartapur in Pakistan since its where an important site for them. Apparently, the Sikhs would help to link up the two countries in the simplest way.


    • Professor,
      I agree with what Jeonghun says about the flow of not only pilgrims, but migrants moving across the border with hopes to stay in either India or Pakistan, perhaps splitting the Sikh population and creating a new divide. Please let me know your thoughts on what effect that might have on each nation and the differences in their views surrounding migration.


      • One cannot really speak of ‘migration’ from Pakistan to India and vice-versa. It is hard enough getting tourist visas for citizens of either country. There is no migration as such. Whatever the Kartarpur Corridor, or another similar passageway linking the two countries, achieves one also has to view the ‘corridor’ as a metaphor for the transgression of a border, for the passage of the self to the territory–physical, culture, and imaginary–of the other. The essay I wrote has to be read as a tribute to the idea of in-betweenness and the particular part that the Sikhs can play in creating new possibilities in that part of the world.


  4. Professor,
    The Kartarpur Sahib seems to be an important religious place for all the Sikhs. This is considering the fact that Kartarpur is the place where the Sahib was built. It is also the place where Guru Nanak passed away, therefore, it is crucial for all the Sikhs to be allowed to visit the place. I think the Sikhs have a crucial role in maintaining and enhancing peace between both India and Pakistan. This is because the Sikhs live in the border of these two countries and have always wanted to be united. Building a corridor would facilitate the movement of the Sikhs in India to Kartarpur. This would only help to enhance peace in the region.


  5. Professor,
    I found this article very interesting and insightful! I really like how compare the in-betweenness of Sikhs, and their ability to potentially act as a metaphorical bridge between Muslims and Hindus, to this physical corridor that is being constructed that would connect Sikhs in India to an important spiritual landmark in Pakistan. It seems that Sikhs are used as pawns in a wider chess game being played by the Indian and Pakistani governments, and their concerns are only addressed when it’s politically beneficial for each government to capitalize on them. I think this connects to the concept of communalism that we’ve discussed in class because religion has become so politicized in South Asia that it seems virtually impossible to separate the two entities.


    • Hi Caitlyn, I think it is certainly possible to argue that Sikhs are being used, as you say, as a “pawn” in the wider chess game between India and Pakistan. But Sikhs have a mind of their own and it is for them, too, to position themselves as people who are distinct and yet can contribute to both Islam and Hinduism, to India and to Pakistan, and so on. I should also say that there is a lot of affection for Sikhs: though they are the object of jokes, tacitly everyone recognizes that they are, as indeed is the case, a very generous community.


  6. Professor,
    The role of the Sikhs as an intermediary in this way is very interesting. Have you also considered that the Dalits of Punjab may, in their own way, serve as this type of intermediary? I was recently reading Urvashi Butalia’s The Other Side of Silence and this article about the Sikhs reminded me of a very interesting interview she had with a Punjabi Dalit woman who said that she and the other Dalits had escaped the Partition violence because she is “neither Hindu nor Muslim”. In fact, in Butalia’s narrative, she seemed to have been overjoyed when either the Hindus or the Muslims of her village, which had not been decidedly given to either India or Pakistan for a long period, left as rumors flew that it would go to one or the other, as it allowed for her and her friends to loot their houses as the Dalits never migrated with either group. It was with great surprise that I learned that many Dalits, too, had also demanded a separate nation state, not just the Muslims, but because they had significantly less power and representation as a group this was never taken seriously. I wonder if they, too, could exist in this space of “in-betweenness”.


    • This is an interesting comment. I know Butalia’s book quite well and have taught it several times, especially in my seminar on the Partition. There was no demand by the Dalits and their leader, Ambedkar, for a separate nation-state as such: some people talked of it, and there was a difference of opinion between Gandhi and Ambedkar going back to the early 1930s on what were called “separate electorates” for the Dalits (or “Untouchables” as they were then called). Most people are unaware that Muslims in India (both undivided and divided) are constituted into caste communities, and to this extent conversion to Islam does not necessarily relieve Dalits of their lower-caste status. But the larger point of Dalits as constituting a state of “in-betweenness” or “liminality” would need a lot of serious thought, more particularly because one would have to be able to state what constitutes their “in-betweenness” as such.


  7. Hi professor,
    The establishment of a corridor linking Dera Babak in India and Kartapur in Pakistan would help to enhance peace in the region. Both countries have Sikhs living there. However the Sikhs in India seem to be hurt most by lack of a corridor between India and Pakistan. This is because Kartapur in Pakistan is an important religious site for them. Apparently, the region of the border between India and Pakistan has mostly Sikhs living there. It would, therefore, be very important for the countries to establish the corridor. Sikhism lies between Hinduism and Islam just as most Sikhs stay in the border between India and Pakistan. Clearly, the Sikhs in both countries should be connected for religious purposes.


  8. Professor
    While the article describes the great admiration for the Sikhs and their faith by both India and Pakistan. Do you feel that the reason that they still retain as stated a draconian visa systems for pilgrims that wish to visit the site is that both nation fear Sikh nationalism and that if they allow greater access to this site. Then Sikhs will demand access to other sites and might lead to the reigniting in the desire of the Sikh population in both nation to seeks the recreation of their own independent homeland.


  9. Hello professor,

    A great way to put an analogy that compares the Sikhs’ tradition and religion to the physical place of the Kartapur Corridor. The fact that the Indians to this day have to travel to the corridor to view Guru Nanak’s historic site and are only granted a sight using binoculars is very interesting to me. Also profound was that, as you stated, the Sikhs play a special role in meditating peace between the divides.

    Sundo Oh


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