The announcement by India and Pakistan of plans to operationalise a visa-free corridor between Dera Baba Nanak in Indian Punjab and Kartarpur Sahib in Pakistan’s Punjab heeds a longstanding plea of Sikh pilgrims. That demand had gathered pace in 1995, when Pakistan renovated the Kartarpur Gurudwara, situated on the site on the bank of the Ravi where the founder of Sikhism, Guru Nanak, spent his last 18 years.
Then Leaders from both sides, including Prime Ministers Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Benazir Bhutto, had pushed for it. In their effort to facilitate travel by Sikhs to important shrines on both sides of the border, they were also alert to the potential of such a move to heal ties amongst their people, and promote dialogue between the two governments.
Given its easy logistics, the 4-km-long Kartarpur corridor is a low-hanging fruit as a meaningful confidence-building measure. The announcement now is particularly timely, with the 550th birth anniversary of Guru Nanak falling in November 2019.
The initiative can also become a template for cross-border exchanges based on faith, which could provide a balm for many communities such as Kashmiri Pandits, who have long asked for access to visit the Sharda Peeth in the Neelum Valley in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir; Sufis in Pakistan who wish to visit the dargah of Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti in Ajmer, Rajasthan; and Sikhs in India and Pakistan wanting to visit important shrines on both sides of the border.
The Birth and the resting place of the founder of Sikh religion Sri Guru Nanak Dev Ji are both in Pakistan. With the creation of Pakistan, the Sikhs lost something very precious. Guru Nanak Dev ji made Kartarpur Sahib, (Land of Kartar, God the Creator) his abode towards the later part of his life and it was here that he left for his heavenly abode. The present Gurudwara that stands tall has been built to commemorate the stay of Guru Nanak at Kartarpur Sahib, Narowal district Punjab Pakistan.
After the partition, the minority Hindus and Sikhs living there migrated to India and many Muslims from India settled in Kartarpur Sahib. It is believed that Karoria Mal also called Duni Chand had met Guru Nanak at Pakhoke and offered 100 acres of land to the Guru who made it his abode and named it Kartarpur. It was here that Guru Started the tradition of Guru Ka Langar (Free Kitchen).The Guru Ka Langar was started with belief in equality of every man and woman since the society had been divided on the basis of caste, creed and wealth. The food for the Langer was grown, prepared and served by the Sangat with members taking turns as volunteers.
When Guru Nanak Left for his heavenly abode, his followers, Hindus and Muslims who initially fought claiming the body for final rites, finally decided to place flowers on his body overnight and whose flowers would wither would lose the claim. Next morning when the sheet was removed, the followers were amazed to find that the body of the Guru was missing and all flowers were fresh. The two communities divided the sheet and flowers and completed the final rites as per their faith. Presently both a grave and a Samad coexist at Kartarpur Sahib.
The Bedi decedents of Guru Nanak Dev Ji built a new town and named it Dera Baba Nanak after their great ancestor. Guru Nanak after his first Udassi (travel) had come to Pakho- Ke Randhawa village near Dera Baba Nanak to meet his family who were staying at their maternal home. Presently Gurudwara Sri Dera Baba Nanak Sahib commemorating the visit of Guru Nanak to this area stands tall here. What separates the two Gurudwaras on either side of the border is the Magnificent River Ravi that flows in her own command raising her levels at times as if she wants to pay her tribute to Guru Ji and have a Darshan of Gurudwara in Kartarpur Sahib.
These two Gurudwaras have also witnessed the wars of 1965 and 1971 fought between India and Pakistan. Partition that witnessed bloodshed of many also resulted in depriving the devotees in India and Pakistan to pay homage at various religious place which had free access earlier. What is more relevant is that some of these Shrines are of great significance for humanity. The Sikhs in their Daily prayer talk about pilgrimage to the holy Shrines that have been separated from them and lie on either side of the borders.
Kartarpur Sahib was located in one of the four tehsils of undivided Gurdaspur. The population distribution of erstwhile greater Punjab was such that no line could actually divide Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs since it was just one mixed cauldron of humanity which lived together for centuries. Sir Cyril Radcliffe divided the land in erstwhile Punjab and drew a line. The Radcliffe line that became a border between India and Pakistan was tragically at times drawn leaving a part of the same village in India and the other part in Pakistan cutting through communities and families leaving deep and indelible scars.
The bridge that existed on river Ravi and connected Kartarpur Sahib and Dera Baba Nanak was destroyed in 1965 war.
Kartarpur Sahib Gurudwara was thrown open to the pilgrims from India as an outcome of the visit of Mr. Atal Bihari Vajpayee to Pakistan in the year 1999. The long overdue demand of the Sikh Community to open the Kartarpur Corridor for Pilgrimage to Gurudwara Darbar Sahib in Kartarpur seems to be reality soon with the Govt of India announcing its plan to set up Kartarpur Corridor and Pakistan also having responded in positive to set up the Corridor at their end.
The Indian Government intends to build Kartarpur Corridor as an integrated development project. This indeed could be a step forward in the right direction from conflict to cooperation, animosity to peace and enmity to friendship. This announcement has been hailed by people of all faiths and is considered a big development towards maintaining peace and tranquility between India and Pakistan. With the announcements by both the governments, it becomes the responsibility of the lovers of humanity to make it happen with earnest efforts. PM Narendra Modi whilst speaking at a function celebrating birth anniversary of Guru Nanak Dev Ji hoped the Kartarpur corridor would act as a bridge between India and Pakistan. He hoped that the corridor might lead to a better future between the two countries, Underlining the strength of people-to-people contact, the prime minister said,” Had anyone ever thought that the Berlin Wall would fall. May be with the blessings of Guru Nanak Dev ji, this Kartarpur corridor will not just remain a corridor, but act as a bridge between the people of the two countries.”
Pakistan has invoked the legacy of Guru Nanak to duck the flak from India on the 10th anniversary of the November 26-28, 2008, terror attack in Mumbai as well as to foment a new phase of Khalistani separatism in Punjab.
The dominant narrative in the India-Pakistan context was expected to revolve around the role of Pakistan’s state and non-state actors in staging that dastardly terror attack in India’s financial capital 10 years ago. The 26/11 anniversary was expected to remind the world how the “deep state” in Rawalpindi and Islamabad helped Lashkar-e-Toiba plan and carry out the mayhem in Mumbai – killing 160 people and injuring many more.
It was to once again bring back focus on how the trial of the seven 26/11 plotters in an anti-terrorism court in Pakistan was turned into a farce and the mastermind of the attack, Hafiz Saeed, allowed to roam freely, even as he continues to spit venom against India. It is also an occasion that reminds us that 26/11 was not the last cross-border terror attack that was launched from Pakistan — it was followed by several other strikes: Pathankot in January 2016, Uri in September that year.
Gopal Singh Chawla, who is the general secretary of Pakistan Sikh Gurudwara Prabandhak Committee is known to speak for Khalistan, was present during the function. Ahead of groundbreaking ceremony of Kartarpur corridor, US-based Sikh body Sikh for Justice (SFJ) has called the corridor ‘a bridge to Khalistan and have also announced to host Kartarpur Sahib Convention -2019 in Pakistan.
SFJ is running a secessionist campaign reportedly on the behest of Pakistan’s intelligence agency ISI to separate Punjab from India and has also been trying to brainwash the gullible Sikh youth in its anti-India propaganda in exchange of various allurements including jobs. Stating that Kartarpur corridor was a ‘bridge to Khalistan’, SFJ’s legal advisor Gurpatwant Singh Pannun said that SJF would hold a convention in Pakistan during the global gathering of Sikh separatists in Pakistan on the occasion of 550 birth anniversary of Sikh’s first master Guru Nanak Dev in November 2019.
It is too early to say that India-Pakistan ties are on the mend following announcements from both sides that they will start developing a visa-free corridor from the Indian border village of Dera Baba Nanak across the border to Gurudwara Kartarpur Sahib, a shrine built at the place where the founder of the Sikh religion, Guru Nanak Dev, is believed to have died. For one, the two sides will need to meet and discuss the modalities. As of now, leaders of the two countries appear to have acted independently of each other as they competed to announce help for the Sikhs to visit the shrine.
At some point, they have to nail down the details: Is it to be opened only for special occasions, or will it give pilgrims access all year round permanently? Will the traffic of pilgrims be regulated? Can individuals visit, or do pilgrims have to be part of jathas? How long will they be allowed to stay? India and Pakistan entered into an agreement on pilgrimages in 1974 under which both sides issue visitor visas for a handful of shrines on either side. The visa-free corridor is only for Indians. But it will require a separate agreement for operationalisation, which will involve complex negotiations given the security ramifications.
Yet the proposed corridor holds great potential for a wider thaw in India-Pakistan relations, which have languished in sub-zero temperatures for a full decade now since the Mumbai 26/11 terror attacks by Pakistani men trained by the Lashkar-e-Toiba. The significance of the Kartarpur Corridor is that the demand for it from the Sikh community was so great that neither side wanted to be seen as opposing it. This is probably the first instance of the two sides setting aside mutual hostility to bend to the will of the people. True, it might not have come this far had each not seen some benefit to itself — for Pakistan, brownie points from the Sikh community which it has wooed for its own geopolitical reasons since the 1980s; for the Indian government, the hope that there would be some meaningful in the future (especially talks on terrorism) . But this should not take away from the huge symbolism of the proposal for two countries that have been unable to resolve any question, big or small, that dogs bilateral relations.
Now, India should build on the leap of faith that it took on the Kartarpur corridor. For starters, both countries must relax visa norms so that there is more people-to-people interaction across the border. An agreement for this already exists since 2012. All that needs to be done is to implement it. A large part of the failure of the two countries to come out of the holes into which they have dug themselves owes to the vacuum created in citizen interaction. It is time to undo that.
The national and international dimensions apart, the rare consensus between the two arch-rival neighbours has come at a time when the relations between them have already nose-dived but on the other hand, the move compels both to keep looking for possible ‘zones of convergence’ in their bilateral relations especially, when as of now other avenues of engagement have dried up.