Across the border

Pakistan’s Sikh heritage could be a bridge to peace, if not bound by its hostile ties with India

Every year, thousands of pilgrims from India travel to the land of the gurus, shedding the historical baggage of the two countries.

Gurdwara Kartarpur Sahib, the final resting place of Guru Nanak, stands on the edge of the Ravi river in Narowal district of Pakistan’s Punjab province. Surrounded by agricultural fields, it is a modest structure, a single building that houses the smadh of the first Sikh guru, with a few makeshift rooms where the caretakers live. However, the gurdwara is slowly expanding. Plans for a langar hall (community kitchen) were being laid out when I last visited the shrine a few years ago. With Sikh religious tourism in Pakistan seeing rapid growth in the past few years, the state has renovated several of these neglected historical Sikh shrines in collaboration with the Sikh community here.

I stood at the edge of the Ravi staring deep into the fields that lay on its eastern bank. With the arrival of the monsoon, the river was swelling. People here believe that every monsoon, the river breaks its banks and reaches the boundary wall of the shrine to offer obeisance to Guru Nanak. A few days prior to my visit, a large snake was caught in the courtyard of the shrine. The caretakers said it, too, was there to pay homage to the guru.

Guru Nanak spent 17 years in this spot, working on his fields and taking a dip in the waters of this ancient river every day. A gurdwara was constructed here during his lifetime where every evening, kirtan (the singing of devotional songs) was performed and then langar served. It is here that Guru Nanak appointed Bhai Lehna as his spiritual successor, calling him Guru Angad Dev, thus laying the foundation of the institutionalisation of Sikhism.

Beyond the river, somewhere deep in the fields, camouflaged by a thick cover of trees, is the most dangerous border in the world. An electric fence topped by high-powered search lights, manned by thousands of soldiers, marks this transition from Pakistan to India. While Pakistani and Indian soldiers exchange fire regularly at the Line of Control, which divides the disputed territory of Kashmir, and the Working Boundary dividing Punjab from Jammu, the International Border remains peaceful. However, tension looms behind this semblance of peace. Contingents of armies on both sides remain ever vigilant, aware of how fragile this peace is.

Gurdwara diplomacy

Defying this heightened sense of antagonism, hundreds of devotees gather every day at the border on the Indian side to catch a glimpse of Gurdwara Kartarpur Sahib, armed with powerful binoculars. Pakistan, for them, is not an enemy country but the home of Guru Nanak. There are about 200 historical gurdwaras scattered across the country that mark important historical events in the lives of the Sikh gurus. These include the birthplaces of Guru Nanak and Guru Ram Das, as well as the smadh of Guru Arjan and that of Guru Nanak.

Every year, thousands of Sikh pilgrims from India and other parts of the world travel to Pakistan, the land of the gurus, to visit these historical sites. These are remarkable pilgrimages that put aside the historical baggage between India and Pakistan and allow many Sikhs to reconnect with a land that is no longer theirs but continues to occupy an important place in their imagination. Hatred fuelled by decades of state propaganda is put aside as various communities intermingle, each humanising the other.

Paramilitary soldiers escort Indian Sikh pilgrims as they arrive at the Wagah border in Pakistan. (Credit: Reuters)
Paramilitary soldiers escort Indian Sikh pilgrims as they arrive at the Wagah border in Pakistan. (Credit: Reuters)

Perhaps these pilgrimages are more important for Pakistan than for the Indian Sikh pilgrims. It allows the country to reclaim some of the history it had to abandon after Partition. It reminds the country that it is home to diverse religious traditions, possibly paving the way for a multi-religious society some time in the future. Muslim Pakistani traders who have never interacted with a Sikh or a Hindu find themselves haggling with these pilgrims all of a sudden, realising they are not the demons they had imagined them to be all these years.

The media reports these events, raising awareness about these historical characters that have otherwise been left out of the national discourse. The increasing inflow of religious tourists is also a blessing for the abandoned Sikh shrines. In the past decade or so, numerous gurdwaras have been renovated and handed over to the Sikh community. This gurdwara diplomacy has the potential to bring the people of the two countries together and also ensure the religious freedom of minorities in Pakistan.

Held hostage by politics

It is perhaps because of the significant role these pilgrimages play that they often fall prey to the age-old narrative of hostility between India and Pakistan. When tensions between the two countries rise, there is a significant fall in the number of Sikh pilgrims traveling to Pakistan. According to media reports, Indian authorities barred Sikh pilgrims from visiting Pakistan twice in the last month. In the first week of June, hundreds of devotees were reportedly stopped from attending a gathering at Lahore Dera Sahib to commemorate the assassination of Guru Arjan. Later in the month, another group of Sikhs was stopped from traveling to Pakistan to mark the death anniversary of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, the leader of the Sikh Empire, the reports said.

On the other side of the border too, there are media reports accusing Pakistan of foul play. Soon after the Indian Army’s “surgical strike” on militant launchpads on the Pakistani side in September, which Islamabad continues to deny, the Indian state alleged that Pakistani authorities had refused to trim the elephant grass at the border close to Gurdwara Kartarpur Sahib, stopping hundreds of devotees from making their darshan.

Every other year, talk about a peace corridor to be constructed at Kartarpur Sahib surfaces. For several years now, the Sikh community has been lobbying for this corridor that would allow Indian pilgrims to travel to the shrine without a visa – an idea that has been warmly received by officials in both governments on several occasions. However, the proposal sinks each time the fragile relationship between India and Pakistan hits a new low. It is in such antagonistic times that these gurdwaras and pilgrimages can play an important role in lowering tensions. Which makes it all the more petty that Pakistan’s Sikh heritage is still held hostage by India-Pakistan politics.

Haroon Khalid is the author of three books – Walking with Nanak, In Search of Shiva, and A White Trail.

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.