Whether by political design, journalistic oversight or sheer editorial default, it was surprising to see that there was no mention of the opening of Kartarpur Corridor on the front page of any leading English daily of Punjab. While there is widespread euphoria and an abundance of pumped up emotions in the Sikhs, this indifference just a few days before the main event reflects the sad apathy of the general mass of the Indians as a whole. Small bits of political news, comments, claims and allegations related to the corridor project are all conveniently relegated to the inside pages and the enthusiasm visible amongst the people, finds negligible coverage in the press.
On the Indian total confusion still reigns on who is setting up entry gates where, to allow who all and the politicians are busy in blame games and struggle for one upmanship. Some responsible leaders are still warning the Union Govt of the possible nefarious designs of the Pakistani ISI. But the Sikh population is generally, and thankfully, oblivious to this clichéd political narrative and thrilled to celebrate the fulfillment of their prayers.
There is a line that all Sikhs recite in their daily ‘Ardaas’ (Prayer) that the khalsa panth be granted open and unrestricted entry to their beloved shrines separated from them by an unkind twist of history. Opening of Kartarpur Sahib corridor is perhaps the logical actualisation and part closure for the prayers of millions of devotees recited all over the world for decades since their homeland was divided in 1947..
Pakistan holds a unique position of leverage with the Sikh community because most of their religious shrines associated with the founder of the Sikh faith, Sri Guru Nanak Dev ji, are located in Pakistan. Sikhs have been visiting these sites regularly through the normal visa process and have always treated these visits like a sacred pilgrimage much like the“Hajj” and “Ziyarat” for the Muslims. On their part Pakistan has always welcomed the Sikh visitors with warmth and love and treated them with utmost respect. There have been no cases of mishaps or accidents during these visits. Stories are often heard how the Pakistani shopkeepers and vendors treat the Sikhs as personal guests and refuse to charge money for goods and services. So it is nothing new for both sides – the Sikhs know what to expect during the new pilgrimage and the Pakistanis are preparing to host them at yet another place.
The Shrine & History
Kartarpur Sahib is a rather quiet and peaceful town located on the right bank of river Ravi in Shakargarh Tehsil of Pakistan now within the district of Narowal. Before partition this tehsil was part of Gurdaspur district but the Radcliffe line divided the country along the river and Kartarpur Sahib went to Pakistan. The Sikhs must have been too engrossed in the business of partition because the Sikh residents of the area silently packed their bags and migrated East over the river without much fuss or protest. That was the right time for the Akalis to organise a ‘Morcha’ and force the departing Britishers to redraw the line on the map. But that was not to be and Sikhs became part of India with Kartarpur Sahib left behind barely 3 km away in the new nation, Pakistan. Frankly, the preferred places of Sikh pilgrimages to Pakistan have been Nankana Sahib and Panja Sahib in Hasan Abdal. Kartarpur Sahib always remained somewhat in the shadows and received first real publicity and both public and media attention during the visit of Shri AB Vajpayee to Pakistan in 1999, then the PM of India.
Kartarpur Sahib is believed to be the first Sikh commune set up by Guru Nanak Dev, founder of the Sikh faith. He stayed here for about two decades before being finally laid to rest by his followers that comprised both Muslims and Hindus in equal numbers. Both communities wanted to carry out the last rites and it is said they did so separately across a wall. However, the Hindu followers led by Guru Nanak’s son carried the urn with his ashes across the river and laid it to rest at another place which is called Dera Baba Nanak now, a bustling town with its own Darbar Sahib (Holy Premises) just a kilometre from the border and holds its own religious importance and significance. Possibly this is the reason why the Sikhs did not venture towards Kartarpur Sahib in the past.
The mausoleums built by the Muslim followers disappeared in time – probably washed away by the ravages of the Ravi and its changing course. The Gurdwara building also came to shambles till the ruler of erstwhile Patiala state, Maharaja Bhupinder Singh ordered the renovation in 1920 and restored the shrine to respectability. Incidentally, the present CM of Indian Punjab, Capt Amarinder Singh is his grandson.
Both Dera Baba Nanak and Kartarpur Sahib are inter-visible on a clear day.
Religious Importance and Relevance
While there is palpable excitement and a spirit of festivity in the Sikh community, there is a need to examine the impact of the Kartarpur Sahib Corridor project on the geo-politics and future stability of the region in particular and the sub-continent as a whole.
Sikhs comprise less than 2% of the Indian population and more than half of them live in the Indian Punjab. Ironically, they are separated from most of the shrines associated with the founder of their faith and it is in this frame of reference that the Kartarpur Sahib corridor assumes significance and centre space in the Sikh psyche. The separation of their sanctums has continued to haunt them and it is only sanity and statesmanship of the regimes that could assuage their sentiments and ensure uninterrupted visits to these places now located within a hostile country. Most Sikhs are still not aware of the splintered cultural legacy and religious heritage thrown at them with passage of time. Politics and nationalist cacophony presides over their socio cultural realm and they are reluctant to look beyond and above their everyday chores. The sharp clawed hawks within the Govt forbids them to entertain any balanced wishful thinking about life beyond borders and forces them to remain forever cynical, apprehensive and distrustful of their deceitful and cunning enemy. Perhaps it is their time to invoke Janus and beseech him to ease their suffering and facilitate a tranquil transition from the bitter, turbulent and bloody past to a blissful and peaceful future.
The free corridor project presents itself at a crucial time in the sub-continent history and offers unique opportunities to both the countries to act wisely and magnanimously. This could prove to be a great confidence building measure between the two historical enemies and be a harbinger of peace and stability in the volatile region. The spirit and sentiments of this initiative has the potential to percolate to other trouble spots in the region and help reduce decades of inter-necine wars and perception.
However, both India and Pakistan have predictably reacted the same way – alternating between outright euphoria and absolute scepticism. Bitter and sworn enmity of the past 72 years, four bloody wars and countless encounters seemingly tip the scales in favour of the cynics. The countries have struggled in the past to find a common walking ground despite high level meetings and agreements at Tashkent, Simla and Agra often brokered by the super powers. Therefore, in the overall scheme of affairs political, by the sheer size of the site and the volume of people influenced by it, Kartarpur Sahib corridor project could appear miniscule and unlikely to decisively impact the overall national policy of the two countries; just a local issue for the Sikhs and Punjab politics unlikely to give any worthwhile political advantage beyond the state borders. However, we need to understand that this is indeed a historic precedent and extremely sensitive and dear to the Sikhs who live in the neighborhood of Pakistan. It’s a no brainer that the corridor project would force the Sikhs to view Imran Khan’s Pakistan in a new light, different from the past regimes and indeed capable of real-politic to usher in peace and stability.
Imran Khan the Hero??
Providence does truly ordain that a person be a a particular place at a particular time and the history of modern civilization is replete with examples where people presided over the building or destruction of their nations. This is a tremendous opportunity for Imran Khan to improve his image and substantially strengthen his position at home and abroad. He has had a rough patch in the recent months and appears on the back foot due to various developments around him, but as far as the corridor project is concerned he has come out on top of this one and is indeed the hero of the moment. His efforts have produced architectural marvels and picturesque ambient delights that are praiseworthy and enough to leave the Sikh pilgrims overawed. The Indian side is still busy doing what they do best – bring politics and parochialism into everything and even fail to reach consensus to appoint a single executive authority or a steering body to put everything and everyone in place. The Pakistan Govt, on the other hand, with due sobriety and reverence, has gone onto quietly releasing a plethora of teasers related to the project – views of the renovated and decked up Gurdwara Sahib, the beautiful bridge, commemorative currency coins, astonishingly beautiful aesthetic layouts, specially converted trains and voluntary contribution of land in hundreds of acres by the Jat, Rajput and Gujar Muslim land owners of the region. There was some news that the Indian Govt failed to even acquire enough land to set up a passport and visa office but Imran Khan’s waiver of the requirement has saved them this embarrassment.
It would be unfair to leave out mention of the reaction and public opinion of the Sikh population on the event unfolding before them. The Sikhs in Punjab and round the world are ecstatic to say the least. Each one of them is alive to the happenings with feelings of euphoria, overjoyed and grateful to the magnanimous Imran Khan. Pakistan has clearly scored over India here and their overall meticulous engineering of the project needs to be commended unequivocally.
So be it – a small diplomatic and moral victory for Imran Khan and peace with the Indian Sikhs who will definitely not forget him in a hurry. I would not go so far as to say that Imran Khan has won a great political victory over his detractors and silenced his critics or even that he has consolidated his position as the Pakistani PM or totally won over Indian Punjab, but it would be true to say that he would find reference in the history of the region and has certainly won this round with just open arms and a smile, without a single gun blazing.
Commentators the world over have a bad incorrigible habit of forecasting the future before the events have even concluded. The Kartarpur Corridor project also has more than its share of such crystal gazing with some ‘intellectuals’ even on the extremes viewing this as a futile exercise that would only give elbow room to the belligerent Pakistan. All the hullabaloo in the region notwithstanding it is obvious to all that there are going to be no extended dimensions to this essentially local religious issue of concern only to a miniscule Indian minority. What happens in the future is therefore actually a no-brainer. Life will soon get back to the normal grind and people will get busy with their mundane bread and butter issues. The Kartarpur Sahib Corridor will continue to get Sikh pilgrims from India and abroad amid feelings of excitement and exhilaration. The social media will soon be flooded with pictures and videos revealing everything there is to see.
The hardliners on both sides of the border would be waiting for their chance – a remote faux pas to put the project in jeopardy and derail the process of peace and bonhomie. There would be vested interests working on a plan to perpetuate the mutual distrust and animosity. And the carpet baggers would seek a Quid pro quo which is unlikely in this case. However efforts would continue to cite this as a precedent to look for reciprocity or a trade-off elsewhere. The intelligence agencies on both sides would continue to provide inputs on the increasing ISI and RAW presence in the region and there would be people arrested for spying or smuggling. Bigoted minds will further intensify their endeavours to shake any regeneration of inter faith confidence or cross border brotherhood that might result from this saga.
How this pans out, lies buried in the future, however, the onus will now be on the Sikhs and them alone to restore their vision and keep their religious grain well away from the political chaff. They need to revamp their religious bodies and free them from the clutches of the wily and corrupt politicians who have exploited them in the name of religion. Sikh intellectuals really need to focus and come together on this one with full time contributions. The Sikh masses need to be educated and guided in the right direction. More than anything else, Kartarpur Sahib Corridor is a milestone for the Sikhs, a rallying point providing a Gateway not only to the resting place of their founder but to their true identity much beyond the geographical expanse of the site.
By- Charanjit Singh Dayal and the views expressed here are his own. The writer Charanjit Sinh Dayal is a freelance poet and blogger who served as a Colonel in the SIKH Light Infantry regiment of the Indian army. He lives in Ludhiana.