On 11 September, The Pakistan government appointed Asghar Zaidi, the Vice-Chancellor of the College University Lahore, as the first Vice Chancellor of the Baba Guru Nanak International University.
Named after the founder of the Sikh faith, Guru Nanak Sahib, the University is located 80 kilometres from Lahore in Nankana Sahib, the birth place of the 1st Guru of the Sikhs.
The foundation stone of the project had been laid by Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan in October 2019, the year that marked the 550th birth anniversary of Guru Nanak. The key aim of the University is to encourage research on Sikhism and promoting the Punjabi language.
It was also announced recently, that classes at the University will begin in 2021, once the construction of the university is completed.
The Baba Guru Nanak University project was first proposed in 2003 during the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) PML-N government’s tenure, but it got a firm push only during the tenure of the Imran Khan-led Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) Government.
Innovative diasporic initiatives
The Sikh Diaspora is likely to be an important stakeholder in this project, not just in terms of providing financial contributions, as certain members of the community in the diaspora have volunteered to, but also intellectual inputs.
Notably, there is an increasing focus by Sikh groups — especially within the diaspora — on disseminating the egalitarian and inclusive message of the Sikh philosophy within the diaspora, by making use of technology.
One pathbreaking initiative is The Guru Granth Sahib Research Project (TGGSP) website started by a US based think tank the Sikh Research Institute (Sikh RI) . This project seeks to use the virtual space to provide a translation and transcreation of each hymn within the Sri Guru Granth Sahib, the Sikh holy book, and ensure that the translation can capture the profound, inclusive and holistic message of the Sri Guru Granth Sahib.
Over 30 experts from different parts of the world are part of this project. The aim is to ensure that different age groups, and individuals of different ideological orientations have the opportunity to learn more about the Guru Granth Sahib. The first version of the TGSSP was released on 1 September to coincide with the illumination day of what was then known as the Adi Granth.
There is scope for the Baba Guru Nanak University to find synergies with not just the TGGSP, but other projects researching on contemporary and historical Sikh-related issues. It should seek to build out-of-the-box collaborations, and make use of technology to overcome geographical barriers.
Religious tourism for peace?
Apart from research, Pakistan’s Baba Guru Nanak University initiative also aims to give a fillip to religious tourism between India and Pakistan.
Since last year, even though ties have witnessed strains, the opening of the Kartarpur Religious Corridor in November 2019 has created new vistas. After the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, the corridor was closed in March 2020 by both sides, but reopened in June by the Pakistani side.
Indeed, Islamabad seems to be giving a push to religious tourism. Apart from the Kartarpur Religious Corridor, renovation of many religious shrines located outside Pakistani Punjab, which were earlier neglected, has begun.
The Pakistan government is promoting religious tourism for not just Sikhs, but also Hindus. In December 2019, visas were issued to Hindu groups to visit temples in Sindh and Punjab.
Only recently, the PTI government announced that it would launch a package for groups of both Hindu and Sikh pilgrims.
It would be pertinent to point out that religious tourism is one area, which has always been on the agenda of bilateral talks and has never been totally disrupted despite tensions
While encouraging steps have been taken in terms of encouraging people-to-people contact through religious tourism, it is important to also look at greater collaboration between scholars from both sides of the divide, especially the Punjab’s, as well as located in other parts of the world.
This has been going on at an individual level, but needs to be done in a structured manner as well. The Baba Guru Nanak University provides a golden opportunity for the same.
Beyond a zero-sum game
In a post-pandemic world, geopolitics requires flexibility and pragmatism. While New Delhi and Islamabad view ties between the two Punjabs from a narrow lens of security or zero-sum approach, it is important to use the goodwill generated by initiatives like the Kartarpur Religious Corridor and Baba Guru Nanak University to reduce tensions.
It is also important that people-to-people linkages, religious tourism and academic collaborations are encouraged and not looked at with suspicion by New Delhi, or misused by sections of the Pakistani deep state who have their own deep rooted political agenda.
New Delhi and Islamabad both need to look at the Sikh Diaspora as a stakeholder in South Asian peace.
There is an increasing amount of oversimplification of ties between overseas Sikhs and Pakistan, reducing it to conspiracy theories, while forgetting religious sensitivities of the community and cultural affinity with Punjabis on the other side of the divide.
Common citizens and individuals who are keen for better relations and potential stakeholders in a better relationship between the two Punjabs bear the brunt of the narrow vision of security establishments.
Views expressed are the author’s own.