ALL roads in Punjab lead to the Kartarpur Corridor these days — a four-lane stretch of macadam that arises out of NH-354, goes to the Indo-Pak border in Dera Baba Nanak, and from there runs to the final resting place of Guru Nanak Dev in Narowal district of Pakistan.
The nearly 9-km corridor (around 4 km of it beyond the border) is not just a road though. It’s an answer to the hopes of Sikhs who have struggled for access to shrines commemorating the birth and death of Guru Nanak since Partition put these on the other side of the border. It’s also one of the rare gestures of peace in the history of the two warring countries.
A year after they set aside their differences to build the Kartarpur Corridor, to mark the 550th birth anniversary of Guru Nanak, and stuck to the decision despite another nosedive in their relations, devotees from the India side are set to visit the Darbar Sahib Shrine where the Sikh Guru spent more than 17 of his last years.
Once the corridor is inaugurated on November 9, the first jatha from the Indian side is expected to take just a few minutes to drive down to the shrine from NH-354.
Kartarpur as a K factor
As the first visa-free passage between India and Pakistan since 1947, the Kartarpur Corridor holds great significance. PM Modi has likened it to the fall of the Berlin Wall, while his Pakistan counterpart Imran Khan has said it is one decision on which all the establishments in his country are on the same page. With the ties between the two countries in free fall again, it kindles hope that some measures between the two countries need not pass the Kashmir test.
A week to go, the small town of Dera Baba Nanak in district Gurdaspur of Punjab is a beehive of activity, amidst the general murmur that work is behind schedule. Past the 100-metre bridge across the Budhi Ravi channel, the road hangs in the air just before the Zero Line. Arshdeep Singh, Deputy Project Manager for Ceigall India, tasked by the NHAI (National Highways Authority of India) to work on the corridor, says this is because Pakistan is yet to construct its side of the bridge. It was only in technical talks in September that it agreed to complete the bridge, which will make the corridor an all-weather road, safe from the swollen waters of the Ravi during the rains. Till that happens, the pilgrims will travel to Kartarpur through an approach road under it.
Even the Integrated Check Post (ICP), with its futuristic design reminiscent of an airport hangar, seems far from completion. Sakattar Singh Bal, Sub Divisional Magistrate of Gurdaspur, says Phase I of work on the ICP, meant to facilitate the movement of pilgrims, is complete. “They have a lot of prefabricated material, only the installation is left. It will be completed before inauguration day,” he insists.
Across the border is a different picture. A gleaming white ICP with its big dome stands finished on the Pakistani side, as does the road leading to the gurdwara as well as the revamped shrine complex. On this foggy day, there is no sign of any man or machine other than Pakistani Rangers on the watch towers that side.
“They completed their work ahead of schedule, while we have been beset with delays,” rues Gurkirpal Singh, a businessman from Dera Baba Nanak who runs a YouTube channel Panj Aab and claims to have been keeping a close watch on the progress on both sides.
A BSF company commander, on duty at the tightly guarded corridor, however, attributes the early completion of work on the other side to their “simple” design. “Look at the hi-tech design of our checkpost, there is no comparison,” he says, refusing to be named.
Competitive nationalism is on full display along the corridor. First, the Pakistanis unfurled their flag on a 200-foot-high pole, says the BSF officer. The Tricolour now towers over at 300 ft. “It takes 10 minutes to hoist it with the push of a button,” beams the officer.
The Pakistani side has also launched a charm offensive, flooding social media with videos showing the Kartarpur shrine with its newly built ponds and gardens, along with claims that the government has installed the biggest ‘khanda (a symbol of Sikh faith)’ in the world near the shrine.
The number of pilgrims and tourists coming to the BSF watch tower in Dera Baba Nanak to see the Kartarpur shrine through a telescope is on the rise. A family from Ahmedabad has driven down 50 km from the Golden Temple in Amritsar to find out what the brouhaha is all about.
Locals say that in the initial years after Partition, the devout would just walk over the Ravi bridge to the shrine. This stopped after relations between the two countries soured, and the bridge was damaged in the 1965 Indo-Pak War.
Four years later, on the 500th birth anniversary of Guru Nanak, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi promised to approach Pakistan for land swap so that the Kartarpur gurdwara could be brought under India. But this never came to pass.
The two countries went on to sign a protocol for visits by their pilgrims to religious shrines in each other’s countries, but Pakistan did not agree to the inclusion of the Kartarpur gurdwara.
Things began to look up in 1999 when then PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee took the Peace Bus to Lahore and proposed the corridor. The same year, late Akali leader Ajit Singh Wadala started a movement demanding access to the shrine. Every amavas (moonless night), he would hold a prayer at the Dera Baba Nanak border along with other devout, banding together under the all-religion body Gurdwara Kartarpur Sahib Darshan Abhilashi Sanstha.
In June 2008, Wadala approached US diplomat John W McDonald, founder and chairman-emeritus of the Institute for Multi-Track Diplomacy, for help. McDonald visited Dera Baba Nanak and called for a corridor to Kartarpur. His wife Christel says McDonald even hired an architect to design what he called “the peace corridor”.
Wadala passed away on June 4 last year, before the announcement of the corridor. His son, MLA Gurpratap Wadala, says he performed more than 220 prayers at the border. McDonald himself passed away on May 17 this year, living to see the commencement of the corridor, and after being feted by Sikhs in America for his contribution to it.
The movement got another small push when Baba Sukhdeep Singh Bedi, a lawyer who claims to be the 17th-generation descendant of Guru Nanak, and whose family has been running a charitable organisation at Dera Baba Nanak, joined hands with the BSF to build a platform at the border which holds the telescope through which pilgrims would see the shrine.
“Since we can’t erect a structure up to 150 metres from the border, I just built a platform on the embankment,” recounts Bedi, all praise for then BSF Commandant Ajit Kumar P for his cooperation.
Bedi says Dera Baba Nanak owes its origins to Guru Nanak, who would often come here from Kartarpur to graze his cattle. “This village was called Pakhoke Randhawa then (this remains its name in revenue records). A large tract of land was owned by one Ajita Randhawa, who gave it away to Guru Nanak,” he says.
The Gurdwara Dera Sahib in Dera Baba Nanak came into existence after the holy guru’s demise on September 22, 1539. Says Bedi, “Since the Guru was revered by both Hindus and Muslims, an argument broke out on his last rites. While the Hindus wanted to cremate his remains, the Muslims wanted to bury him. Finally, they divided the white sheet that covered him into two. While the Muslims buried it at a mazaar in Gurdwara Darbar Sahib at Kartarpur, his Hindu disciples kept the remains in an urn… When the Ravi flooded Kartarpur a few years later, Guru Nanak’s son Sri Chand brought the urn here and buried it at the spot where Gurdwara Dera Sahib was built. Ajita’s well, that Nanak used to frequent, has also been preserved.”
Dera Baba Nanak and the villages around it are replete with such Guru Nanak stories. Every year, on March 4, over one lakh pilgrims congregate in the town to take a look at the ‘chola (gown)’ he wore on his visit to the Middle East. It is displayed in a glass case at a shrine controlled by a family that also claims kinship with Guru Nanak. With no resthouses around, the villagers open their hearts and homes to the pilgrims, says Gurkirpal Singh, the YouTuber.
The walls of Dera Baba Nanak are covered with the Guru’s philosophy of “Naam japo, kirt karo and vand chhako (Remember the Almighty, work hard and share the fruits of your labour)”.
Villagers of Jaudian Khurd say the ancient banyan tree near the corridor has a Nanak connection too, while Chandu Nangal village is home to a small shrine to Guru Nanak’s son Sri Chand. “He lived here for 12 years,” says Mahant Bhagwan Das, telling you that his family, which goes back 500 years, has not meddled with the main structure except for painting it. Today, it’s a tribute to the region’s syncretic culture, with the Guru Granth Sahib inside and a havan kund for Hindu prayers outside.
“I don’t live off donations, I tend to my fields and cattle. I try to live by the tenets of Guru Nanak,” says Das.
Still, the corridor has brought much-needed makeover to Dera Baba Nanak, which has other links to history besides Guru Nanak. Kalanaur, where Mughal Emperor Akbar was coronated at the age of 13, is just 12 km away. Further afield is Qadian, the headquarters of the Ahmadiyya Islamic sect, which has faced much persecution in Pakistan.
“We have seen a lot of work in the last few months,” says Arpit Kumar, who runs Mukta Boot House, overlooking the statue of Maharaja Ranjit Singh at the cramped trijunction that serves as the main roundabout of Dera Baba Nanak. “The roads have been rebuilt, they are promising to cover the drains as well.”
The market on the main road boasts a ‘beauty academy’, a gym, a gun house, a burger place and a couple of photostat shops. Amandeep Kaur of Sohal Photostat has started offering a new service — of registering pilgrims for the day-long visit. Same as Sat Pal Jakhmi, the owner of Noble Computer Services, and the town’s self-appointed head-hunter, who regularly puts up placards with job openings. “Delhi police HC (head constable) di bharti (recruitment). Last date: 13.11.2019”, “Fire operator: 766 posts”, beckon some boards outside his shop.
Dera Baba Nanak is also being remodelled as a City of Fragrance, with an assortment of aromatic plants such as Chameli, Sadabahar, and Raat ki Rani being planted alongside its roads and avenues.
The administration has brought five of the 13 neighbouring villages into the urban ambit of the town for better planning, while others await their turn. Also in the offing are a Passport Sewa Kendra and a post-office.
Youngsters wish the government would grant them a college as well. “As of now all our youth have to travel miles to either Gurdaspur or Batala for graduation,” says Gurkirpal Singh, youngster in the market.
The realty sector also seems to be looking up. Kuldeep Singh is busy showing the land around the corridor to prospective customers from Amritsar. “The land rates have gone up from Rs 23 lakh for an acre to Rs 37 lakh. And farmers have started demanding crores,” he laughs.
Earlier, this would be unthinkable, with Dera Baba Nanak vulnerable to frequent cross-border hostilities and Ravi’s swelling waters. There was a time when people wouldn’t marry their daughters to men here, say the locals.
There will be collateral benefits for them too, believe neighbouring villages. “We will soon be like Chandigarh,” grins Balwinder Kaur, marvelling at the beautification of the corridor. Monica, who stopped studies after Class 12, asks, “Will I get a job now?”
However, some farmers fear the corridor is bitter-sweet news. The cauliflower crop grown here is known all over Punjab for its taste. “We don’t know when the hostilities will erupt again, when they will tell the pilgrims to stop,” points out Surjeet Singh, 65, of Jaurian Khurd, reminding about the cessation of trade at the Wagah border near Amritsar in the wake of the Pulwama attack and the change of status of Jammu and Kashmir.
Dera Baba Nanak SDM Gursimran Singh says they have acquired 108 acres in all for the project — 50 acres for the ICP and 58 for the corridor — from 250 farmers.
Surjeet, who had to part with one kanal of land, says money can’t compensate for what he lost. “I hope they don’t need more, for then we will have to leave our homes, our livelihood.”
There is also fear what the newly built bridge may entail. As the gateway to Sialkot in Pakistan, Dera Baba Nanak saw the impact of the Indo-Pak wars of 1965 and 1971 from close quarters. Elders remember how the town and nearby villages emptied out. While the bridge was damaged in 1965, in 1971, it was from here that an Army brigade launched an offensive on Pakistan. It became the first Brigade of Western Command to hoist the Tricolour in the captured territory of Pakistan.
Every year, the Army celebrates Dera Baba Nanak Day on December 5 and 6. In the town stands a small white obelisk dedicated to the martyrs of 10 Dogra. There is also a road called 10 Dogra Marg, but few know about it.
Since the corridor was announced, private contributors too have been coming. Baba Sewa Singh of Khadoor Sahib, an environmentalist who was awarded a Padma Shri for his work on planting of trees and restoration of old shrines, is helming the reconstruction of Gurdwara Dera Sahib, which is being undertaken without tinkering with the slab under which the urn containing the ashes of Guru Nanak lies buried. Baba Bishan Singh, his deputy, says they are making a much bigger hall in view of the pilgrim rush. The doorway to the shrine now faces the Kartarpur gurdwara instead of a market, as it did earlier.
A plantation drive has been undertaken by Baba Manjit Singh of Zirakpur, a town near Chandigarh. Baba Shabeg Singh of Goindwal near Amritsar has built gates on the approach roads from Ranmdas and Batala towns, while the Dera Baba Nanak roundabout is being revamped by Dubai-based philanthropist S P S Oberoi, who plans to install ‘Ek Onkar (the central tenet of Sikhism)’ there along with an image of rabab, the musical instrument played by Guru Nanak’s companion Mardana. Panchayats from neighbouring villages too are offering help.
The Punjab government has spent Rs 25 crore to set up a tent city to accommodate up to 3,500 visitors free of charge, while pavilions have been built for religious events to be held in the town from November 8 to 12. “We are spending over Rs 560 crore on the events here and in Sultanpur Lodhi (the town where Guru Nanak is said to have obtained enlightenment). It’s a very important occasion for all the followers of Guru Nanak,” says Chief Minister Capt Amarinder Singh.
The corridor had fuelled bitter politics within the ruling Congress when then Cabinet minister Navjot Singh Sidhu had claimed credit for it. It was during his visit to Pakistan to attend Imran Khan’s swearing-in as Prime Minister that Pakistan Army chief Qamar Javed Bajwa told him about their decision to open the corridor. Sidhu is now out of the picture, though Pakistan has invited him for the inauguration.
The run-up has also seen the Congress and the Shiromani Akali Dal, which continues to retain control over the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee that runs Sikh shrines, trying to upstage each other. But the Chief Minister, who will head the first batch of pilgrims to Kartarpur on November 9, says his focus is only on Nanak. “The shrine is of great personal significance to me. My grandfather Maharaja Bhupindar Singh had donated Rs 1,35,600 for the present building in 1925 after it was ravaged by floods.”
Earlier, there was some worry when online registrations remained low due to Pakistan setting requirements like passport and a steep $20 (around Rs 1,400) fees for the visitors. Punjab Cabinet minister Sukhjinder Singh Randhawa, MLA from Dera Baba Nanak, pointed out that 60 per cent of his constituents did not have passports. On November 1, Imran Khan, however, said Sikh pilgrims would only need a valid ID, not a passport, and they wouldn’t have to register a week in advance either. No fees would be charged on the inaugural day and on Guru Nanak’s birth anniversary on November 12, he added.
The locals see a sign in how things seem to be falling into place, along a line where they rarely do. As Gurkirpal, the city’s chronicler, puts it, “It is all Baba Nanak’s grace.”