On the eve of Guru Nanak Dev’s 550th birth anniversary next year, the long felt demand of the devotees for a corridor to link Kartarpur in Pakistan with Dera Baba Nanak on the Indian side, was met with the Vice President, Venkaiah Naidu, laying the foundation on the Indian side, and the next day the Pakistan Prime Minister, Imran Khan, performing a similar ceremony at the Gurdwara Darbar Sahib at Kartarpur.
Imran Khan laid the foundation stone of the 4-km corridor in the presence of the Union Ministers, Harsimrat Kaur and Hardeep Singh Puri who had specially flown there. The corridor, expected to be completed by next year, will link Gurdwara Darbar Sahib with the Dera Baba Nanak shrine in Gurdaspur district to facilitate visa-free movement of pilgrims of both countries, thus fulfilling a long-felt need of the devout. The corridor will link both the shrines and facilitate visa-free movement of pilgrims from both countries.
Gurdwara Kartarpur Sahib was established by the first Sikh Guru and where Guru Nanak Dev is said to have died. The former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee had been the first to propose the opening of the corridor when he visited Lahore as part of historic bus yatra which was he launched during his peace initiative with Pakistan.
The Gurdwara is in Shakargarh in Narowal district of Pakistan's Punjab province and, according to devotees, it is believed that Guru Nanak spent there more than 18 years of his life. Captain Amarinder Singh’s grandfather, Maharaja Bhupinder Singh of Patiala, had ordered the construction of Gurdwara Kartarpur Darbar Sahib between 1921 and 1929.
Every year Indian pilgrims travel to Pakistan to offer prayers at the Gurudwara and this takes place four times in a year - for Baishakhi, Guru Arjan Dev’s martyrdom, the death anniversary of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, and Guru Nanak Dev's birthday.
Imran Khan could not resist wondering, at the ceremony, if 'we' would 'have to wait for Navjot Singh Sidhu to become Prime Minister of India to improve ties between the two countries.’ He said that Sidhu was sure to win if he contests from Punjab in Pakistan. These comments have come at a time when Sidhu is being criticised back home for choosing to visit the groundbreaking ceremony.
‘I heard there was a lot of criticism of Sidhu when he went back after my oath-taking ceremony. I don't know why he was criticised. He was just talking about peace and brotherhood. He can come and contest election here in Pakistan's Punjab, he'll win.’
Imran Khan stressed that the only issue between India and Pakistan was Kashmir and emphasized that the two have a great potential if that dispute was resolved. ‘The only issue between us is Kashmir all it needs is just two capable leadership to resolve this issue. Just imagine the potential we have if our relationships get strong.’
Expressing satisfaction over the opening of the corridor, Imran Khan said, ‘The happiness I saw today (among the devout) was like of those Muslims who are standing 4 km away from Medina on the other side of the border but are unable to visit it, but when they get chance to visit it, the happiness they get is the happiness they are relishing today.’
The glorious white structure stands tall in the middle of lush green rice fields 2.5 km off Shakargarh Road and the uneven mud track path leading to it passes through fields, with schoolchildren hopping back home and farmers herding cattle. There are no settlements except those of a few gypsy families.
That magnificent structure of the Gurdwara Darbar Sahib is about 120km from Lahore, but just 4km from the Indian border. The gurdwara made headlines following Imran Khan’s swearing-in ceremony where the Army Chief, Gen Qamar Bajwa, assured visiting cricketer-turned-politician Sidhu that Pakistan planned to open the Kartarpur corridor for Sikh yatris on Guru Nanak’s the 550th birth anniversary. Later, the Information Minister, Fawad Chaudhry, reiterated Pakistan’s desire.
This is not the first time opening the corridor has been in the news. Various proposals have been discussed and announcements made since the Musharraf era, but lack of interest by the Indian side, they allege, has kept the proposals confined to cold storage.
Several Indian legislators have taken up the issue with their governments since the late 1990s and last year, an Indian parliamentary standing committee, headed by Shashi Tharoor, ruled out the construction of a corridor citing security concerns. Last month, the Punjab Assembly adopted a resolution asking the Centre to take up with Pakistan the opening of the corridor.
As one enters the gurdwara, on the right side is a small courtyard where lies Guru Nanak’s shrine. On the left side is a courtyard for distributing langar and living quarters. Inside the carpeted hallway is a small samadhi. Upstairs is the main prayer hall where the Guru Granth Sahib is placed.
‘Hindus, Sikhs, Muslims, everyone considered Guru Nanak their saint, so when he died on September 22, 1539, Muslims and Guru Nanak Naam Lewa Sangat got into a feud over who would get his remains,’ explained the caretaker,Gobind Singh. ‘When the sheet covering Guru Nanak’s body was lifted, his body was not there, but only fresh flowers. Both sides divided the sheet and flowers between themselves and Muslims made a shrine for him and Sikhs made a Samadhi.’ He has been appointed here by the Evacuee Trust Property Board (ETPB) and belongs to Nankana Sahib.
The caretaker says that Sikhs from all over the world visit the gurdwara, though it remained shut from 1947 to 2000. ‘Pakistan has several times offered to India that it will construct a road to Kartarpur. The proposals were even approved and during the Musharraf era a tender was floated with 50 per cent of road construction being carried out. But India never responded.’
The caretaker gets emotional when talking about any opening of the corridor. ‘This has been the biggest demand of the Sikh community. Meanwhile, around 250 Muslims come here daily. Since there aren’t any Hindus or Sikhs living nearby, those from Sindh come every other week. There are no Sikhs, but a lot of Hindus in the district.’
Owners of a couple of makeshift shops selling pakoras and other snacks also see chances of themselves gaining something. ‘Sikhs will be able to come here freely and in return the area and its people may also benefit in terms of business,’ says Asif. ‘The price of land here will increase, more shops will open.’ Even so, ‘if the border opens, there will be a lot of security as the army will be deployed. Right now, people can go to their fields freely.’
Another shopkeeper, Haji Sarwar, says he too has heard about the border opening, and is excited. ‘It should open. They’ve been saying this for years, but I think it will open this time; it will take time though. Besides Sikhs, local farmers will also benefit. It might eventually be open to other citizens too,’ he explains.
But not everyone’s happy with chatter around the corridor opening. A farmer said he stands to lose, as any road will be barricaded, cutting access to his fields. ‘I till 400 acres on both sides of the Ravi. We, the growers, will be at a disadvantage as any road will be lined with barbed wire,’ he said.