Kartarpur's lesson for Ayodhya

Published: 18 November, 2019 04:56 IST | Ajaz Ashraf | Mumbai

The outcome of ancient linguistic, spiritual and cultural ties shared between Sikhs and Muslims is not only a watershed in history but also a lesson for us today

Sikh pilgrims at the Shrine of Baba Guru Nanak Dev at Gurdwara Darbar Sahib in Kartarpur, Pakistan. File pic
Sikh pilgrims at the Shrine of Baba Guru Nanak Dev at Gurdwara Darbar Sahib in Kartarpur, Pakistan. File pic

Ayodhya and Kartarpur represent contrasting themes. Ayodhya harnessed history to cast a forbidding shadow on the present. The Kartarpur Corridor symbolises the possibility of people, living on either side of the Radcliffe Line in Punjab, to overcome their traumatic past. Before and after the Line was drawn, in 1947, to partition Punjab, nearly a million people perished. Pakistan's Punjab was ethnically cleansed of Sikhs and Hindus and India's of Muslims.

Delhi justifiably suspects Islamabad of exploiting Kartarpur for nefarious purposes. But what is beyond doubt is the growing bonhomie between the Sikhs and Muslims of the two Punjabs. The inauguration of the Kartarpur Corridor, on November 9, was just the occasion to fathom why they, daggers drawn 72 years ago, have reforged bonds. Alas, the Ayodhya verdict, delivered on November 9 as well, blanked out Kartarpur from discussions.

Language is said to have threaded the two Punjabs again, after 1947. This linguistic affinity has worked because it has a cultural and spiritual wrap. Sikhism, like Islam, is monotheistic, opposed to idolatry, and emphasises the equality of all human beings. It also shares attributes of Hinduism, but also radically differs from the latter, at least scripturally, because of Guru Nanak's position on caste.

An upper-caste Khatri, Nanak took to agriculture, in the last 18 years of his life, in Kartarpur. His choice challenged the division between manual and non-manual work, the principle underlying the Hindu caste hierarchy, as sociologist Paramjit Singh Judge has written. Caste equality was further reinforced through langar, or community dining, a Sufi practice that Nanak adapted for his religion. This must have had a special appeal for Punjab's 16th-century farming community, including Muslims, which had low social status because of their occupation.

The degree of sameness between Islam and Sikhism was why, during Nanak's lifetime, Muslims considered Nanak as waliullah, or friend of Allah. This was cited by historian KS Duggal to explain the continued popularity of the saying, "Baba Nanak Shah Faqir Hindu da Guru Musalman da Pir (Baba Nanak Shah, the Mendicant, Guru of the Hindus and Pir of the Muslims)."

Shared spiritualism was reflected in Punjab's hugely popular genre of qisse, or romantic tales in verse, such as Sohni-Mahival and Heer-Ranjha. These narratives emphasised saint veneration and rejected rigid religious identities. Ranjha, for instance, follows yogic practices. As academician Farina Mir notes, "This [qisse] was a form of piety that all Punjabis could participate in, irrespective of differences of religion, class, or caste."

Qisse's pull was tellingly portrayed during the 1940 trial of Udham Singh, who had assassinated Michael O'Dwyer for perpetrating the Jallianwala Bagh massacre. In the witness box, Udham gave his name as Ram Mohammad Singh. He refused to swear on the Koran, the Gita or any of the Sikh scriptures, maintaining, as academician Alyssa Ayres writes, that "his allegiance was to…Heer Ranjha [qissa of the poet-saint Waris Shah]"

Yet Punjab's syncretism could not become a bulwark against the Partition, largely because community identities were sharply drawn now to lay claims to territorial sovereignty based on population. Separateness was emphasised over sameness. The publication of Kahn Singh's We are not Hindus, in 1899, was followed by the expulsion of Brahmin priests from gurdwaras. These differences were papered over as Hindus and Sikhs, in West Punjab, were targetted by Muslims, who were ethnically cleansed in East Punjab.

That traumatic past seems denuded of emotions as the Sikhs and Pakistan's Punjabi Muslims tango today. Some ascribe this to the lingering feeling of betrayal among the Sikhs over the Operation Blue Star, which saw the Army enter the Golden Temple, in June 1984, to flush out the militants. The Hindu became the Sikh's 'other.'

Yet the old wounds in the two Punjabs could not have healed without the change in their demography post-Partition. Muslims constitute 1.93 per cent of India's Punjab. In Pakistan's Punjab, the Hindus and Sikhs are not even one per cent of its populations; they cannot be a threat, politically or economically, to Pakistan's Punjabi Muslims, nor can the Muslims be to the Sikhs in India's Punjab. Reworking of the horrific Partition legacy became irrelevant for political mobilisation. The present was delinked from the past. The Partition memory lost its sting for at least three generations of Sikhs and Muslims, in Punjab, who did not learn to hate each other.

Separated by space and time, the Sikhs and Muslims have rediscovered the sameness they shared, a sameness which once gave their collective selves remarkable cultural vibrancy, beauty, and coherence. The impulse to piece together fragmented selves has emanated from the Punjabi diaspora, where the Sikhs and Muslims have experienced anew the bonds of spiritualism and culture — particularly music, literature and food — tying them together.

As the political spotlight shifts to Ayodhya, Kartarpur tells us to emphasise the civilisational sameness, instead of separateness, to ensure our collective self does not get fragmented and become warped.

The writer is a senior journalist

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