AT a time of great confrontation and mistrust in the subcontinent, Pakistan has taken a major step towards peace by opening the Kartarpur Corridor in Punjab’s Narowal district.
The corridor gives visa-free access to devotees from across the border to visit Gurdwara Darbar Sahib, one of Sikhism’s holiest shrines, on this side of the fence. The corridor was formally opened by Prime Minister Imran Khan on Saturday in a ceremony attended by hundreds of people, including former Indian premier Manmohan Singh, as Sikh yatrees hailed the decision.
In his speech at the event, Mr Khan called for peace and cross-border trade between Pakistan and India, while also highlighting the grim situation in India-held Kashmir. Through the corridor, 5,000 visitors will be able to cross over from India daily to visit the shrine in Pakistan without a visa.
Indeed, religious tourism has great potential to promote people-to-people contacts in the subcontinent. Pakistan is home to other significant Sikh shrines — in Hasan Abdal, Lahore etc — and a similar formula can perhaps be adopted to let foreign visitors pay respects at these religious places through a more relaxed visa regime.
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Similarly, there are ancient Hindu temples in Sindh’s Thar region, the Hinglaj mandir in Balochistan, as well as Katas Raj in Punjab, which can attract visitors from India and elsewhere.
With Kartarpur, Pakistan has shown its intentions to facilitate non-Muslim visitors, and a more relaxed bilateral visa formula can help promote religious tourism. However, it takes two to tango, and India must also reciprocate by easing restrictions on Pakistani visitors wanting to pay their respects at revered Sufi dargahs on the other side of the border. The chill in bilateral relations has resulted in difficulties for Pakistanis wanting to visit the dargah of the revered Khawaja of Ajmer, Nizamuddin Aulia in Delhi, as well as the tombs of other Muslim saints on the occasion of their urs or even otherwise.
Pakistan has extended a hand of friendship by facilitating Indian Sikhs in their demand to easily access Kartarpur; India must do the same and make arrangements for Pakistanis to visit Muslim sites in their country without hassle.
The promotion of religious tourism and people-to-people contacts should be pursued to reduce hostilities between Islamabad and New Delhi. However, the key irritants in the relationship — particularly the Kashmir issue — must not be lost sight of. Mr Khan rightly said at the Kartarpur event that a just solution to the Kashmir question could help bring peace to the subcontinent.
Unfortunately, India’s rulers have failed to grasp this basic fact for over seven decades. If India is serious about the pursuit of peace, a good first step would be to lift the siege of occupied Kashmir and let the beleaguered region’s people breathe. Constructive dialogue on Kashmir, together with confidence-building measures, can help break the deadlock in the subcontinent.
PAKISTAN’S prisons are packed beyond capacity. The exact scale of this nationwide crisis was recently presented in a report to the Supreme Court by the federal ombudsperson’s office. According to the findings, there are a total of 77,275 prisoners held in 114 prisons across the country. Appallingly, these prisons only have a combined capacity to house 57,742 people. The vast majority — 47,077 — of these prisoners are languishing in the 42 jails of Punjab, against a total sanctioned strength of 32,477. This is followed by Sindh, which houses 17,239 inmates in 24 prisons, against its capacity to accommodate only 13,038 inmates. There are many negative consequences that are directly linked to the problem of overcapacity, and which affect both the psychological and physical health of the prisoners. Some researchers suggest that such suffocating conditions also impact the prisoners’ conduct towards one another, pointing to a higher rate of assault in spaces with limited movement and space to breathe and think. Such learned antisocial behaviour can continue even after prisoners are released back into ‘healthy’ society. This state of affairs is especially alarming when we consider that minors, first-time offenders and petty thieves sometimes share the space with hardened criminals and terrorists in Pakistani prisons. Others have pointed to high blood pressure rates among inmates due to the stress caused to their mental and physical state by their living conditions. Additionally, there is a burden on resources, and prisoners suffer from malnutrition due to poor diets and a lack of medical attention. They can contract a variety of diseases, which can then be passed on to those in close proximity.
Overcrowding in prisons is a long-standing issue, written about countless times before, yet it does not seem to get the political attention it deserves, as both state and society seem to forget or are apathetic to the fact that prisoners have rights too. Then there is the lesser-talked-about fact that the vast majority of Pakistani prisoners are still under trial or waiting for their trials to begin. A sluggish trial process is one of the major reasons prisons are teeming beyond capacity. While it is necessary for the government to create more prisons, detention facilities and juvenile centres, and simultaneously increase the capacity of existing ones, until the problem of judicial lethargy is not addressed, we may never see significant progress on the ground.
RIDING the crest of a wave, Pakistan’s prolific cueist Mohammad Asif has done the nation proud yet again by winning the IBSF World Snooker title in Antalya, Turkey, on Saturday. Asif coasted to an 8-5 victory over unseeded Jefrey Roda of the Philippines in the final to clinch the coveted title for the second time in his career. The 37-year-old had first bagged the prestigious honour in 2012 in Sofia, Bulgaria, and has now joined the select group of just five cueists to have achieved the feat twice since the inception of the World Snooker Championship in 1963. To his credit, Asif never lost focus in the highly competitive tournament, displaying skill and precision to overcome some tough opponents en route to the final — including leading Thai player Kritsanut Lertsattayathorn in the semi-final.
It is ironic, though, that while the nation has rejoiced in Asif’s remarkable win, the game of snooker is unlikely to receive an official shot in the arm thanks to the neglectful treatment meted out to it by governments of yore. Pakistan emerged on the horizon of global snooker in 1994 when Mohammad Yousuf won the world title at Johannesburg. Since then, several cueists have won a number of laurels for Pakistan including Asif, Mohammad Saleh, Asjad Iqbal, Mohammad Bilal, Babar Masih and a few others. However, they have failed to get any support or appreciation, let alone incentives, and are often seen running from pillar to post to raise funds in order to compete internationally. It is hence that the original spirit of the sport is getting diminished. Most snooker parlours that had mushroomed in the late 1990s across the country have now closed down, while the sport’s parent body the Pakistan Billiards and Snooker Federation has struggled to get sponsorship for tours. Unlike cricket, hockey and squash which have experienced a downward trend in recent years, snooker has kept the Pakistan flag flying high. The government and private sector must realise the tremendous potential snooker holds and put their weight behind the cueists so that they can win more honours.