HASANABDAL, Pakistan — Under the gurdwara’s bulbous domes, hundreds of Sikh pilgrims dipped into the holy water while others recited from the religion’s holy scriptures. Here in Hasanabdal, a city an hour north of Pakistan’s capital Islamabad, hundreds of Sikhs from around the world – including neighbouring India – were invited by the Pakistani government to celebrate Vaisakhi during a period of simmering tensions between India and Pakistan. The annual festival marks the spring harvest and is a celebration of the codification of Sikhism’s rules, rituals and institutions under the religion’s 10th guru, Guru Gobind Singh.
Despite ongoing tensions between India and Pakistan, this year nearly 1,900 Indian Sikh pilgrims – known as yatris – crossed the Wagah border and boarded special trains to Sikh pilgrimage sites, joining an organised tour that allows them to see historical cities where the religion’s founder lived and preached. The tour will end on April 21.
As the birthplace of Sikhism’s founder Guru Nanak, Pakistan has long courted at least 25 million Sikhs from across the world for religious pilgrimages under a 1974 protocol signed with India. However, despite an agreement to allow cross-border travel for religious tourism, the festivals have often become politicised and are not immune from the divisions that usually mar India-Pakistan relations. The most recent flare-up occurred in February when a Pakistan-based terrorist group took responsibility for a suicide bombing that killed 40 soldiers in India-administered Kashmir. The following weeks saw a game of tit-for-tat cross-border firings, air strikes and warmongering between the two nuclear-armed powers which threatened to escalate until the capture and release of an Indian air force pilot by Pakistan.
“Before I came, I had a lot of worry about war,” says Mohan Singh, a 66-year-old taxi driver from Mumbai who was in Pakistan for the pilgrimage. “But when I reached here, I saw there was no war and the Pakistani people welcomed me. Here you can’t tell who is from India or Pakistan,” Singh says about the other pilgrims. “They both look the same.”
Gurdeep Singh, a Pakistani Sikh, also expressed delight that this year’s festivities had not been cancelled due to the India-Pakistan tensions. Singh is one of Pakistan’s approximately 20,000 Sikhs, a community that is small but undercounted due to an exclusion from the 2017 census. Last year, Pakistan passed a new law regulating Sikh marriages, providing them with recognition under their own legal framework.
Nowadays, Hasanabdal is home to around 200 Sikh families that have primarily moved from Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, including Pakistan’s former tribal areas. The majority are Pashtun Sikhs who abandoned their homes and took refuge near Sikhism’s historical sites during waves of worsening insecurity and conflict along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. Although targeted violence against Sikhs is rare, last year a prominent Sikh activist was shot dead in Peshawar, and in 2016 a Sikh politician looking after minority affairs was assassinated in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
This year marks the 550th birth anniversary of Sikhism’s founder, an event that has energised the Pakistani government’s efforts to bring more Sikhs to the country than ever before.
“Pakistan has always stood for religious freedom and respect for all faiths. It has always wholeheartedly welcomed Sikhs from across the world,” says Muhammad Tariq Wazir, secretary of the Evacuee Trust Property Board, the main government body tasked with maintaining Sikh heritage sites in Pakistan. “Our message is very clear – don’t let politics ruin sentiments on both sides of the border.”
Wazir, however, places blame across the border for any fear Indian Sikhs might have about coming to Pakistan this year for Vaisakhi or Guru Nanak’s birth celebrations in November. “Indian media has created a lot of fear for the Sikh pilgrims, who are mostly innocent villagers travelling for the first time to a foreign country,” Wazir says.
Still, many Sikhs express a desire to see India and Pakistan enjoy good relations if only to prevent a breakdown of the Kartarpur corridor, an initiative that would connect Sikh shrines in India and Pakistan and make it easier for pilgrims to access Sikhism’s most revered sites. “We want a good connection with our Pakistani brothers and to be able to go freely between the two countries. We don’t want war,” Mohan Singh says. The 66-year-old Indian says that war hysteria is often manufactured by governments but rarely serves the ordinary South Asian citizens who seek common goals of economic security and peace.
Last month, India and Pakistan renewed efforts to work on the Kartarpur corridor, surprising Sikh pilgrims like Singh, who never thought plans for the corridor would materialise in his lifetime. “It was in my prayers every morning and evening to see the Kartarpur corridor happen,” he says.
Now in his 70s, Indian Sikh Harjinder Singh is currently on his ninth trip to Pakistan and says he will continue travelling to Pakistan as long as the country extends visas to pilgrims. Aware that trips to Pakistan are not always possible, most of the time Harjinder watches videos of Sikh pilgrimage sites in Pakistan online. “As long as a visa is issued, I will come. This is our Punjab,” Harjinder says about the province that was divided, with one half still sitting in India and the other in Pakistan.
Harjinder is critical of the notion that Pakistan and India cannot achieve peace and sees festivals like Vaisakhi as an integral peace bridge between the two nations. “Why can’t peace happen? It should happen,” he says. “The public gets along and wants to meet, but doesn’t get opportunities to meet outside of these festival periods.”
“The Sikh community wants to come to Pakistan,” adds Harjit Singh, 71, who made his first religious pilgrimage to Pakistan’s Sikh sites in 1995 and has returned multiple times since then.
Like many Sikhs, Harjit has an intimate connection to Pakistan. Before the countries of India and Pakistan were carved out of British India in 1947, Harjit’s father worked at a post office in Rawalpindi, a city which now sits in modern-day Pakistan. Although his family migrated to India in the wake of partition, Harjit says Sikhs “feel free” in Pakistan and adds that many Sikhs are grateful that the Pakistani government has maintained upkeep of the historic sites. “I have seen many governments change in Pakistan, but the gurdwaras have always been taken care of,” Harjit says.
Indian pilgrim Dilib Singh, 49, adds that visiting Pakistan is “like coming home.” The carpenter from Mumbai traces his ancestry back to Sukkur in the southeastern Sindh province of Pakistan. Before 1947, his parents worked on the fields of Sukkur and left in the tumult of Partition, leaving behind luggage and dishes. “They didn’t want to leave. At the time, they thought that the war would be short and they could return home. But when the killings started happening, they had to flee.”
Singh’s family eventually resettled in India’s Rajasthan province. But in his childhood, Singh remembers his parents often reminiscing about their home in Pakistan and even promising to leave Rajasthan to go back. The desire was never fulfilled, Singh says, but Pakistan’s Sikh pilgrimages have allowed him to reconnect with the old geography and a forgotten piece of his own family history.
It’s a sentiment echoed by many other Indian pilgrims, part of a small and uniquely positioned group able to see and maintain relationships on both sides of the border. “The governments are fighting, not the people,” says Harjit Singh.