BY INDIRA PRAHST
Chair, Department of Sociology and Anthropology,
& Race and Ethnic Relations Instructor,
Indira Prahst with Muhammad Ejaz Chaudhry, Secretary, Ministry of National Harmony, and Ramesh Singh Arora in Islamabad last February. Photo by Veer-G
RAMESH Singh Arora, the first Sikh Member of Provincial Assembly (MPA) in Punjab province of Pakistan since the 1947 Partition, told me this week in an interview on the telephone that one of the key issues he wishes to work towards is the Kartarpur Sahib-India corridor for Sikhs in India and Pakistan to have greater access to historical places of worship on both sides of the border.
Arora, who I have met during my visits to Pakistan as reported in Asian Journal over the past couple of years, was nominated in June on a seat reserved for minorities by the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N),
Arora, whose family is connected to the district of Narowal, where Gurdwara Darbar Sahib Kartarpur is situated, in a special way, is strongly connected to his Sikh faith and identity. He told me he plans to ensure that religious sites are properly maintained and remain accessible to all religious communities.
The first time that I met Arora was through his work in preserving Sikh gurdwaras associated with the Pakistan Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee.
The next time I also met several of his family members and wrote about their work in this newspaper on the organization they founded called MOJAZ Foundation which aims to provide resources and skills to empower marginalized communities. The third time I met with his family and two young children.
Gurdwara Darbar Sahib Kartarpur, Narowal. Photo by Indira Prahst
The last time I met him was in connection with his involvement in helping to organize an interfaith conference in Islamabad last February that was attended by the then-Prime Minister of Pakistan. Arora introduced me to the Secretary, Ministry of National Harmony, Muhammad Ejaz Chaudhry and I was invited to speak at the conference along with Sardar Sham Singh, President, Pakistan Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee.
On each occasion, Arora’s advocacy for human rights and his work towards the preservation of religious identity stood out.
Here is what Arora had to say:
INDIRA: How do you feel about being the first Sikh Member of Provincial Assembly (MPA) in Punjab, Pakistan?
ARORA: This is very good for the Sikh community and I am feeling very positive about it.
INDIRA: What are some key issues affecting Sikhs in Pakistan that you wish to address in your new position?
ARORA: I first want to say that by being a parliamentarian, if any issues arise for Sikhs, Hindus, Christians and Muslims it is my role for the nation to draw attention to them. My role as parliamentarian lies in nation development for all faiths. But in the case of Sikhs, issues specific to the Sikh community and understanding them as a Sikh myself, I can bring them to the legislature for review [and] to be acted upon. For example, a top priority is the Kartarpur Sahib-India corridor. Back in 1947, because of security one could not go to the gurdwaras so freely. From 1999 to the present day, there has been over 12 years of great efforts to make Kartarpur Sahib re-open and accessible to the public. This has been possible through the contributions of Muslims and Sikhs such as Sardar Sham Singh, President, Pakistan Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee, Veer-G, who has been managing Kartarpur Sahib, and other Sikh shrine projects throughout Pakistan for over 10 years, Former Additional Secretary (Shrines) of Pakistan, Zahid Hussain Bukhari, [who remains committed to maintaining Sikh heritage and shrines who has managed Kartarpur Sahib] and others.
INDIRA: Do you feel there is support for this corridor to facilitate access to Sikh shrines between India and Pakistan and what is the process
ARORA: My discussion with leadership within the Sikh and Muslim communities shows we are on the same page with respect to the creation of the Kartarpur Sahib-gateway for Pakistan which makes work in that direction easier and more hopeful. The process and plan is to address this to the Punjab assembly [to pass a motion]. Once it is passed then we have it submitted to the legislature for discussion. Then we would bring it as an agenda item for discussion with India and the Sikh community. There is moral support from Sikhs and guidance for a better Pakistan. I look forward to taking on this issue for Sikhs and others and moving forward in a positive way.
Ramesh Arora’s mother and four brothers and other family members at Kartarpur Sahib. Photo by Indira Prahst
INDIRA: What about the commemoration of Operation Bluestar that you have been attending in Pakistan?
ARORA: This year was special because every year I used to be one of them who used to be part of those Sikhs who would hand over the paper of memorandum [on human rights violations] to the speakers and Punjab Assembly. This time I was with the speakers and Punjab Assembly to receive the protest note which we then forwarded to the governments of Punjab and Pakistan for action.
THE issue of the Kartarpur Sahib corridor resonates with many Sikhs in both India and Pakistan. This revealed itself in many ways to me over the years, but especially in Kartarpur Sahib last year when I was there for Vaisakhi and on the day the pilgrims from India arrived. Some spoke about their disappointment of having to drive back to Lahore for three hours to cross the border instead of doing so from Kartarpur Sahib which is about three kilometres from the Indian border. Others talked about the difficulty of getting a visa.
The profound emotions that pilgrims experience upon entering the sacred space of Kartarpur Sahib are impossible to express in words. One elderly woman told me how she waited 20 years (because of visa issues) to visit Sikh holy shrines in Pakistan as tears poured down her checks.
Kartarpur Sahib stands out majestically next to the small village of Kothay Pind, and is visible on both sides of the Ravi River – a place that is very special for Sikhs because Guru Nanak Dev Ji, who was born in Nankana, spent the last years of his life here and departed from the world on September 22, 1539. Guru Nanak Dev Ji’s Mazaar is at Kartarpur Sahib. Veer-G told me that people walk to the Indo-Pak boundary line and stand there and pray and then go back – a sublime moment indeed to see the workings of the human heart.
A visit to Ravi River behind Kartarpur Sahib with India in the backdrop. Sikh preacher and brother of Ramesh Arora, Gurvinder Pal Singh, is second from left.
THIS week, I also I spoke with Veer-G about the Kartarpur Sahib corridor. When I asked him what it means for Sikhs, he replied: “On the Pakistan Kartarpur Sahib corridor, we must know the history. Kartarpur Sahib was opened by the request of Sardar Sham Singh and Chairman at the time who took serious note of it when he saw how the gurdwara was locked and not operational since independence. Permission was given to renovate Kartarpur Sahib and it was reopened.”
He added: “With respect to the opening of the corridor, the Pakistan government is ready to open it. It really is in the hands of India and how they carry this out. A half kilometre road is under construction from the Pakistan side in its effort to reach up to the border. You know, if the Indian Government declares the opening of the passage today, the passage can be opened within a year’s time.”
IN closing, I have always stated firmly that a lack of access for Sikhs on both sides of the border to their historical and religious sites is a violation of human rights in the context of identity formation and subjectivity as a lived spiritual experience. Pakistan continues to be a jewel for Sikhs with architectural identifiers: the Lahore Fort from where Maharaja Ranjit Singh ruled after defeating the coalition of three Sikh governors (Lahna Singh, Gujar Singh, and Sobha Singh) in 1799, the key shrines of the birthplace of Guru Nanak Dev Ji, the imprint of Guru Nanak Dev Ji’s hand in the warm pools of Gurdwara Panja Sahib, Hasan Abdal, and the Mazaar of Guru Nanak Dev Ji at Kartarpur Sahib.
While there is support in Pakistan for preservation of these sites, greater access through the establishment of the Kartarpur-India corridor would be another historical marker through the efforts of the first Sikh Member of Provincial Assembly (MPA) in Punjab.
And in Veer-G’s words: “It is a dream come true. It is a very happy moment for Sikhs all over the world as well as for Pakistani Sikhs, where for the first time in history a Sikh has advanced to the level to become a member of the Punjab assembly and who knows the significance of Sikh holy places as being part of the Sikh body and spirit.”