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Before Kartarpur Corridor, a struggle of five decades to reopen, restore gurdwara

It is a story of grit and resolve, determination and diplomacy, and faith as Sikh community in India and abroad waged a long-drawn battle to get the Gurdwara Darbar Sahib reopened and restored in Pakistan.

Written by Divya Goyal | Ludhiana |
Updated: November 9, 2019 12:56:15 am
Darbar Sahib Kartarpur gurdwara in district Narowal of Punjab province in Pakistan — in June 1984 — in a neglected state. (Source: Hardip Singh Chowdhary/His book: Sikh pilgrimage to Pakistan)

Baba aaya Kartarpur, bhekh udaasi sagal utara, Ulti Gang vahaioni Gur Angad siri upari dhara (Guru Nanak reached Kartarpur and removed his robe of a traveler. Soon he reversed the Ganga, made Angad the Guru and bowed to him) — Bhai Gurdas (Pauri 38)

The story is not a very old one.

Till just about 20 years back, the final resting place of Guru Nanak Dev — the Gurdwara Darbar Sahib at Kartarpur in district Narowal of Pakistan — stood in a derelict state.

It had already been 50 years since the Partition and those who visited Kartarpur even in the late 1990s remember the gurdwara as a crumbling structure, the paint peeling off its dome, standing among overgrown shrubs. Only a muddy stretch led to the shrine. Security personnel patrolled the area and there were none to sing the prayers at the final abode of the founder of Sikhism.

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While the proposed opening of Kartarpur Corridor between India and Pakistan, to give access to pilgrims on Indian side to the holiest Sikh shrine, is being seen as the gilded moment of peace between the two nations on the 550th birth anniversary of Guru Nanak, another battle was fought for almost five decades after the Partition — To get Kartarpur gurdwara reopened and restored in a country, which has an approximate 20,000 strong Sikh population.

Present day gurdwara after restoration work.

Sikh religious leaders and community elders say that while now there are many vying for the credit on who convinced the Pakistan government to reopen and restore the gurdwara, the fact remains that it was a collective pressure by the Indian Sikh community and those settled abroad and the diplomacy at several levels by the Indian government, which worked.#

While Sikh sangat from India and those in the UK, Canada and the US started visiting the shrine in late 1990s and got some repair works done, the gurdwara, located 4 kilometers from Dera Baba Nanak in Gurdaspur on Indian side, continued to be in a very bad shape. The access to the shrine was restricted. “Some locals from Muslim community, who are followers of Guru Nanak, used to pray there but they couldn’t install Sri Guru Granth Sahib or perform other rituals,” says an elderly Sikh from Pakistan.

Officially, it was in 1999, after the Pakistan Sikh Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee (PSGPC) was constituted in April that year, that wheels of change started moving for Kartarpur gurdwara. Initially, the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee (SGPC) on Indian side objected to the formation of PSGPC, mostly because it didn’t want to lose control over gurdwaras in Pakistan. It also objected to the appointment of Lieutenant-General Javed Nasir, former chief of Pakistan’s intelligence agency ISI, as first chairman of PSGPC.

Now, the Evacuee Trust Property Board (ETPB), a body under the Government of Pakistan, which works as the caretaker for the properties and shrines left behind by Hindus and Sikhs who migrated to India after the Partition, along with PSGPC is responsible for the upkeep of the gurdwaras. As per the information available in the official records of the ETPB, accessed by The Indian Express, it was in September 2000 that Pakistan started work to restore and repair the crumbling structure. The work started ahead of Guru Nanak’s Jyoti Jyot (death anniversary prayers — Guru Nanak is believed to have died at Kartarpur on September 22, 1539).

When Pakistan started construction of roads in 2004 near the gurdwara.

Speaking to The Indian Express over phone, Bhai Gobind Singh (46), the head granthi at Kartarpur who was posted there in April 2001 and continues to serve till date, said, “It was in September, 2000 that Guru Granth Sahib was installed ahead of Guru Nanak’s Jyoti Jyot prayers (path) which were held from September 20 to 22 — the first time after the gurdwara was reopened after the Partition. Since then, the tradition has not been broken. It also marked the beginning of renovation work by the Pakistan government. Though local sangat had started visiting gurdwara in 2000, the first Indian jatha of pilgrims officially visited it in September 2005.”

“At Kartarpur gurdwara, we have two sthaan (memorials) of Guru Nanak — a dargah (where it is believed his Muslim followers buried his half torn chaadar) and a samaadh (where Nanak naam lewa sangat cremated the other part the chaadar),” he said.

Parwinder Singh, a frequent visitor to Kartarpur from Amritsar, remembers how five devotees, led by one Manjit Singh, had ferried Sri Guru Granth Sahib from Gurdwara Dera Sahib in Lahore on September 19, 2000. “Their vehicle broke down on the way. However, a Muslim man helped them reach Kartarpur. Pathis were called from Nankana Sahib to hold prayers. After Jyoti Jyot prayers culminated, devotees requested then PSGPC president Sham Singh to not send Guru Granth Sahib back to Lahore. He agreed and the holy book was installed permanently at Kartarpur. Granthis from other gurdwaras used to be called on duty temporarily before Gobind Singh was posted in April 2001,” he adds.

Kuldip Singh Wadala and others submitting memorandum to then Pakistan PM Shaukat Aziz in 2006 demanding opening of corridor.

When the restoration work started, Pervez Musharraf was the President of Pakistan in 2001 and Atal Bihari Vajpayee the Prime Minister of India.

“The gurdwara was formally opened in September 2004 after complete restoration. Akhand path was held to mark Jyoti Jyot prayers of Guru Nanak. Sardar Sham Singh, the first president of PSGPC had played an instrumental role in getting the gurdwara reopened after the Partition,” said a senior official from ETPB.

Meanwhile, the demand to open a corridor for Indian pilgrims to reach the other side for darshan, started strengthening too. The demand was raised when Vajpayee took a bus to Lahore in 1999 and when Dr Manmohan Singh took over as the PM in 2004.

Bhabhishan Singh Goraya (68) from Amritsar, a retired government employee, and among the pioneers running a campaign for opening of Kartarpur Corridor, was part of a jatha that went to Pakistan in 1994. “We were at Gurdwara Sri Panja Sahib in Pakistan when one of their ministers Sardar Fateh Muhammad Hassani came to address the pilgrims. Benazir Bhutto was the PM then. I told Hassani that Muslim and Sikh community have a beautiful and pious link in Kartarpur gurdwara, which was lying in a shambles. I told him that burying someone after death is an Islamic ritual and they must respect it. They should open the gurdwara and offer prayers at Guru Nanak’s grave. A year later, the Muslim community started doing sewa at Nanak’s grave,” says Goraya, who has been running the website since 2001.

“It was only in 2004 that Pakistan constructed Narowal-Shakargarh road to Kartarpur for easy access to gurdwara and we had got some photos from Narowal officials,” he adds.

Another 1984 picture by Hardip Chowdhary showing gurdwara in poor state. (Source: Hardip Singh Chowdhary/His book: Sikh pilgrimage to Pakistan)

HS Sarna, a former president of Delhi Sikh Gurdwara Management Committee (DSGMC) and a frequent visitor to Pakistan shrines, says that it was in 1996 that some Sikhs from the UK and the US started visiting and getting repair works done at Kartarpur gurdwara by collecting donations. “Till 1999, only local Muslims used to pray at Kartarpur. We started taking pilgrims from India in 2003 but the infrastructure was still minimal. We met Musharraf at Rawalpindi and raised demand for proper development at the site. The then Punjab CM in Pakistan Chaudhry Pervaiz Elahi had also assured complete restoration,” says Sarna.

Punjab Cabinet minister and Dera Baba Nanak MLA, Sukhjinder Singh Randhawa, had attended the prayers at Kartarpur gurdwara in 2004. “There were some Sikhs from abroad who had initiated talks with Pakistan government to reopen the gurdwara. From the Indian side, the demand was always on,”he adds.

However, there were also allegations that Pakistan allegedly started exploiting pro-Khalistan sentiments of the Sikh diaspora who would approach the government demanding restoration of the shrine.

For 17 years, he prayed for Corridor to open; it did only after his death

It was on the Baisakhi day (April 14) of 2001 that Kuldip Singh Wadala, a former Akali legislator from Nakodar, started offering monthly ardaas at the Dera Baba Nanak border, praying that Kartarpur gurdwara be reopened and corridor constructed.

His long term companion Gurinder Singh Bajwa, general secretary of Wadala’s Kartarpur Ravi Darshan Abhilashi Sanstha, says, “For 17 years, he (Wadala) prayed every month at the border. However, he died before corridor project was announced. We performed the last — and the 226th — ardaas on October 28 as his prayers had been answered.”

Kuldip Singh Wadala (with mic in hand) during one of his monthly ardaas at border which he started on April 14, 2001.

Recently, Punjab Chief Minister Capt Amarinder Singh announced that the road leading to the Corridor will be named after Wadala.

Bajwa further says they attended prayers at Kartarpur in 2004. “Though gurdwara was restored, infrastructure still wasn’t up to the mark. We met then Narowal MP Rifat Kahlon demanding that the shrine be included in the list of pilgrimage sites approved for Indians. The demand was accepted and first official jatha visited Kartarpur in 2005. Kahlon also arranged a proper power connection for gurdwara. Then in 2006, we submitted a memorandum to then Pakistan PM Shaukat Aziz at Islamabad demanding Corridor to be opened,” he adds.

“Those who say that Kartarpur Corridor being opened now is result of (former Punjab minister) Navjot Singh Sidhu’s hug to Pakistan Army chief or his friendship with Imran Khan, make a mockery of the entire effort. Eh sab Baba ji di mehar hai (It is a miracle of Guru Nanak),” he further says.

Torn into two halves: Kartarpur and Dera Baba Nanak connect

Guru Nanak, it is believed, spent last 17 years of his life at Kartarpur where he arrived in 1522 after completing his travels spreading message of humanity, oneness and tolerance. One of his followers Bhai Dhuni Chand gifted him land at Kartarpur and Nanak established his simple abode where he used to preach Sikhism. However, Nanak also used to preach Sikhism at Dera Baba Nanak (few kilometers away on other side of river Ravi) and sit near the khoo (well) of one of his followers Jeeta Randhawa.

When he died at Kartarpur on September 22, 1539, a disagreement broke out between his Muslim and other followers, including Hindus, on post-death rituals. It is believed that Nanak’s body disappeared and his chaadar was found torn in two pieces. While one was cremated by Hindus and a memorial erected on that spot, the other part was buried by Muslims at Kartarpur.

Bhai Gobind Singh, head granthi at Kartarpur gurdwara, had come on Zero Line with karha prasad and siropa, when ardaas was done at the border and binoculars were installed for Indian pilgrims in May 2008.

Some years after his death, Nanak’s abode at Kartarpur was washed away in floods. His son Sri Chand shifted some soil from his memorials in Kartarpur to the other side of the river where currently stands Gurdwara Dera Baba Nanak in Gurdaspur. Dera Baba Nanak was originally named ‘Pakhoke Randhawa’ because here also Nanak’s follower Jeet Randhawa had donated his land.

Centuries later, Maharaja Ranjit Singh, through his General Sudh Singh Dodi, got Kartarpur gurdwara restored. He also gifted a gold palanquin to Dera Baba Nanak gurdwara. Then the Kartarpur gurdwara was constructed by one Lala Shyam Das in 1911. The floods again ravaged the building and then Maharaja of Patiala Bhupinder Singh, grandfather of Captain Amarinder Singh, donated Rs 1.35 lakh to restore the building (from 1920-1929 AD), as per the plaque installed there.

There were no proper roads near gurdwara before Pakistan constructed some in 2004.

Kartarpur- From the eyes of a visitor in 1984

Hardip Singh Chowdhary, a Sikh from the US and one of the earliest visitors to Kartarpur, says, “My brother and I visited the gurdwara in June 1984. Our visit was facilitated by a government official and we were driven in a military vehicle. The gurdwara was in a derelict state and had a few military soldiers on the ground and on the top of the building. They were watching over Ravi river with binoculars.”

In his book ‘Sikh Pilgrimage to Pakistan’, one of the oldest publications exploring gurdwaras in Pakistan, he writes, “Until the Indo-Pakistan war in 1965, there used to be an annual fair at Kartarpur to mark Baisakhi. It is now abandoned and neglected. The weather continues to erode and deteriorate the historic gurdwara each year. It is in need of restoration. There is no trace of any past existence of the city of Kartarpur… In the last couple of decades the river Ravi has on three occasions flooded the area, leaving gurdwara untouched and it is thus regarded as a living miracle…’

When Darbar Sahib granthi attended prayers at the Zero Line

Till 2008, the devotees on the Indian side used to pray and see the gurdwara from the border, standing on the dhussi bandh of the river Ravi. “Most in Punjab did not even know that gurdwara was visible from here,” says Sukhdeep Singh Bedi, the 17th descendant of Guru Nanak who got ‘Darshan Sthal’ constructed and binoculars installed at the border. The entire setup was handed over to the Border Security Force (BSF) on May 6, 2008. The occasion witnessed emotional scenes as Bhai Gobind Singh, head ganthi of Kartarpur gurdwara, arrived at the Zero Line where common ardaas was held. “We held prayers at the zero line that day and the karha prasad came from Kartarpur gurdwara. Bhai Gobind Singh came with prasad and a siropa and handed it over to BSF personnel. There was a fenced wire between devotees on both sides,” says Bedi.

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