Nuclear Rivals India and Pakistan Opened up a ‘Peace Corridor.’ That’s Pissing Some People Off.

But for many Indian Sikhs, the move meant their first chance to celebrate Tuesday's holiday at a revered temple in Pakistan.
November 12, 2019, 7:11pm

As Sikhs around the world celebrate a holiday that’s like their Christmas, the 550th birthday of their religion’s founder, they’re also celebrating something surprising: a rare moment of cooperation between India and Pakistan.

Earlier this year, the two nuclear rivals came to the brink of war, launching air raids into each other's territories, and later suspended ties after India revoked the autonomy of Kashmir, a territory both countries claim. But over the weekend, they briefly set aside their differences to open a corridor where Indian Sikhs can for the first time travel without a visa to Kartarpur Sahib, a temple in Pakistan marking the lands where founder Guru Nanak lived out his last days.

The corridor’s opening was deeply emotional for pilgrims like Avtar Singh, who feared he’d never get a chance to visit Kartarpur Sahib because of the political bad blood between India and Pakistan.

“Seventy years ago, my family had to move from this side of the border — our district was Gujranwala —it was unfathomable that we’d ever visit this land again,” Singh said. “I’ve never been this happy in my whole life.”

The British drew a line that split the Sikh homeland between India and Pakistan at the end of their colonial rule. In the bloody partition that ensued, 12 million people, including Singh and his family, left behind their ancestral lands.

“In 1947, they say we got freedom. In my opinion we didn’t get freedom, we got screwed — they divided our families,” Singh said.

This corridor is a step toward undoing some of those wrongs, but not everyone in India is excited about it opening.

About a year ago, Two Hindu extremist groups put a bounty on the head of a famous Indian-Sikh who became the face of efforts to improve ties with Pakistan for his role in opening the corridor.

When former cricketer and politician Navjot Singh Sidhu attended the 2018 inauguration ceremony for Imran Khan, a fellow former cricket star who was elected as Pakistan’s Prime Minister, he hugged Pakistan’s army general after he promised him they’d get the corridor built.

India’s media freaked out on Sidhu for that hug, and he even received death threats from Hindu extremists. Many Hindu nationalists worry about Pakistan’s ulterior motives when it tries makes nice with India’s ethnic minorities.

Though their paranoia can get extreme, Pakistan does support ethnic insurgencies within India, including one in Kashmir now, and a Sikh separatist movement back in the 1980’s.

Counter-terrorism experts say that’s Pakistan’s way of fighting an arch-rival that’s has a bigger economy, population, and military.

“They believe that India is just too disparate to survive as a country and that eventually, it is going to break up,” Dr. Ajai Sahni, Executive Director of the Institute for Conflict Management, told VICE News.

“This is what they see themselves engaged in: a process of taking the ‘Balkanization of India’, which they believe to be inevitable, and pushing it forward, accelerating it — what they describe as the war of a thousand cuts.”

While experts like Sahni see this corridor as another small “cut,” he doesn’t think it’s opening will cause an increase in Pakistani terror.

To the pilgrims visiting Kartarpur for the first time since partition, however, the corridor is an argument against nationalism — and proof that life on the other side of a border drawn by their colonizers isn’t all that different.

“It’s such a welcoming feeling, to come into a country that we weren’t allowed in … and we’re being treated with such love and respect,” Manjit Singh Anand told VICE News.

“I say to the government, the people, all of the brothers working here: I am super thankful, that they gave us this place, showed it to us, and have won over our hearts.”

Video produced by Zayer Hassan, Angad Singh, and Maeva Bambuck. Editing by: Adam Deniston

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