In correcting a historical wrong, the promise of Kartarpur can’t be faulted. But in the backdrop of the other noises from Islamabad, Delhi has reason to be wary. Shubhajit Roy reports from Kartarpur, Lahore and Islamabad, on the long road from Kartarpur to peace.
The sun is about to set on the horizon, and there’s a slight nip in the air. An elderly couple from Agra is walking slowly, with Kamaljeet Kaur holding 60-year-old Atmajit Singh’s hand as they negotiate the crowd at Gurdwara Sri Kartarpur Sahib, where Sikhism’s founder, Guru Nanak Dev, died 500 years ago.
It’s a crisp white gurdwara amid lush green, with sparkling green windows. In the outer courtyard, people are sitting on the ground having a langar (community feast). The inner courtyard holds what is believed to be Guru Nanak’s grave.
Sikhism’s first Guru is believed to have lived at the site where the Kartarpur gurdwara was built for the last 18 years of his life. The legend goes that after his death, Hindus and Muslims fought over his body. While the Muslims wanted to bury him, the Hindus wanted cremation. The body lay out at night as they debated, and the next morning, flowers were found where Guru Nanak had been. The flowers were then equally distributed among the two sets of devotees, and while half of the flowers was buried, the other half was cremated. So Guru Nanak has both a Hindu cremation site and a Muslim grave. The main gurdwara was built at the cremation site, the grave lies in the courtyard. The local Muslims are among those who work at the gurdwara.
Kamaljeet and Atmajit bow at the courtyard, and then walk from one of the four entry doors into a small room where Guru Granth Sahib is kept. Those devotees who fail to enter the sanctum-sanctorum, which is tightly packed with followers, touch their heads on the dwaar and move on.
Emerging from the solitary exit door, Kamaljeet has tears in her eyes, while Atmajit beams. They had been planning this trip to Kartarpur for years, they say.
Atmajit and Kamaljeet were among the over 3,000 Indian Sikh who travelled to Pakistan in the later half of November to visit the holy shrines. They came to Kartarpur after visiting Nankana Sahib, where Guru Nanak was born. As tears roll down her cheeks, Kamaljeet says, “Now we can die in peace.”
When they left home, the couple, the other pilgrims with them, and barring a handful, most officials on both sides of the border, couldn’t have imagined what would come to pass within 10 days. Just moments earlier, a historic moment played out in a white shiny tent next to the gurdwara, with Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan holding a ground-breaking ceremony for a unique corridor that will connect Kartarpur on the Pakistani side to Dera Baba Nanak in Gurdaspur in India, allowing pilgrims visa-free access down it — a mere 4-km leap that has often seemed impossible in the violent history of the region and the two countries.
Khan underlined the significance of the moment in his speech, while making a statesman-like appeal for peace. The sceptical Indian side, taken by surprise at the sudden announcement of the corridor, forcing it to rustle up a ground-breaking ceremony one days earlier, was more muted. So beyond the gesture, and beyond its significance as a correction of a historical wrong that put an international border between Sikhs and some of their holiest shrines, will the Kartarpur corridor really prove to be the peace corridor?
The demand for a Kartarpur corridor is nearly 20 years old. It was first officially raised by PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee with Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in February 1999 during the historic Lahore bus yatra. Subsequently, it was a part of India’s agenda whenever delegates met during bilateral meetings with Pakistan. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh also put it on the table in a speech in Amritsar in 2004. Over the past two decades, India also asked for Gurdwara Kartarpur Sahib to be included in the 1974 protocol on religious shrines.
While there had been no movement so far, in August this year, at the swearing-in of Imran Khan as PM, Pakistan Army Chief Qamar Javed Bajwa suggested to Punjab minister Navjot Singh Sidhu, an invitee, that serious steps would be taken to open the corridor to mark Guru Nanak’s 550th birth anniversary year. With Sidhu drawing a sharp rebuke from the Indian government, which called his interaction with the Pakistani side “hobnobbing”, the possibility that anything would emerge out of Bajwa’s promise was quickly dismissed.
According to sources, in the period since, with India-Pakistan ties continuing to oscillate, there were no backchannel talks to take the corridor further. In fact, the Indian side kept asking the Pakistan Foreign Ministry through diplomatic channels, in the form of note verbale, to confirm if Bajwa had indeed said what Sidhu claimed. While there was no official confirmation, Pakistan sources point out now that Bajwa never denied Sidhu’s claim either.
A few days ago, timed with the start of Guru Nanak’s 550th birth anniversary year, India announced plans to develop a corridor up to the international border for Kartarpur pilgrims, and appealed to Pakistan to do the same. Within minutes of the Cabinet decision being announced, Pakistan Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi tweeted that Pakistan “has already conveyed to India its decision to open Kartarpur Corridor” for the anniversary, and that PM Khan would do a groundbreaking ceremony on November 28.
While what prompted this sudden burst of bonhomie is likely to remain a matter of debate, observers point out that Pakistan’s announcement coincided with the 10th anniversary of the 26/11 attacks, with Islamabad in for another round of international recrimination for not taking action against perpetrators.
The mastermind of the attack, Hafiz Saeed, continues to roam freely in Pakistan, while his associate Zaki-ur Rehman Lakhvi and others alleged to be key players in the attack have not been convicted by Pakistan’s courts still.
Pressed for answers on this by Indian journalists at his first-ever interaction with them as PM, Khan said “there has been a clampdown” on Saeed’s activities, but noted that he had “inherited” the issue.
Foreign Minister Qureshi was more unambiguous, telling Indian reporters that there was no “tangible evidence” against Saeed.
Similarly, while Khan made the point from the Kartarpur stage that Pakistan’s government and army were on the same page when it came to improving ties with India, there was little evidence of that beyond the Pakistan Army chief’s silent presence at the groundbreaking ceremony.
The Kartarpur announcement has been followed by familiar noises, about the road that India-Pakistan peace could take — from bilateral cricket series to liberalising visas. But so far, they remain ideas on the table from Pakistan, with the Indian side maintaining that “talks and terror cannot go together”.
Indian diplomats posted in Islamabad, meanwhile, have been reporting back to Delhi on Khan’s failure to address India’s concerns on terrorism. “By announcing their intention to open the corridor, the Pakistan government forced Delhi’s hand. This is a strategic distraction,” a top Indian official says.
What has added to India’s discomfiture is the resurgence of “pro-Khalistan elements” at gurdwaras in Pakistan in the past few months. The Indian side counts some of Pakistan Sikh Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee office-bearers, including Secretary General Gopal Singh Chawla, as among them. Chawla was present at the Kartarpur ceremony.
Besides, posters calling for a referendum in 2020 for Khalistan were on display during the recent visit of Sikh pilgrims to Pakistani gurdwaras, forcing the Ministry of External Affairs to lodge a protest against Islamabad promoting “secessionist tendencies”.
Says an Indian diplomat in Islamabad, “I have not seen such a massive mobilisation of Khalistani groups in the many years that I have been posted here.”
South Block sources say “evidence” in the form of photographs and videos of pro-Khalistan posters at these gurdwaras has been shared with the Pakistan High Commission and Foreign Ministry officials. Chawla himself was among those who raised anti-India slogans at Nankana Sahib during the Indian pilgrims’ visit and has been photographed with Hafiz Saeed.
South Block is said to be concerned that Gurdwara Kartarpur Sahib could end up becoming a hub of “pro-Khalistan” activities, as it fears Nankana Sahib has become.
Asked about his thoughts on the Sikh referendum, at Kartarpur, Chawla told The Sunday Express, “Aaj mohabbat ka din hai (Today is a day of love). No comments.”
While no one disagrees that there are many hurdles to peace, despite the glimmer of it on November 28, there are calls from the Pakistani side to seize the moment. Sitting at his home in a village in southern Punjab, former Pakistan National Security Advisor Mahmud Ali Durrani, who was sacked for confirming 26/11 attacker Ajmal Kasab’s nationality in January 2009, says, “The Kartarpur initiative is a warm glow in an otherwise gloomy environment. I pray both countries show wisdom and move forward positively… Interestingly, this is a Punjabi initiative, the voice of a common culture from both sides.”
He adds, “Our next step should be to liberalise the visa regime. Let the common man decide for a change.”
Lt General (retd) Talat Masood, a noted Pakistani defence and political analyst, adds, “It (the Kartarpur move) will create goodwill and understanding. It could act as a trigger for better opportunities.”
Agrees former Pakistan High Commissioner to India Abdul Basit, “I can only hope that this initiative helps create a positive milieu leading to a sustained and constructive dialogue process. We must not let the goodwill to dissipate as such historic occasions emerge rarely. However, given India’s prevarication on Jammu and Kashmir, I am not very hopeful. I wish New Delhi proves me wrong.”
Apart from deflecting 26/11 heat, and turning some of it onto Delhi and its flip-flops over Pakistan ties, Khan could have also earned momentary respite from domestic problems.
Pakistan’s currency has been in free fall the past few months, from Pakistani Rs 102 to a US dollar in May to Rs 144 in November end. Despite Khan’s claims that he will overcome the economic woes, experts in Pakistan say the lack of a plan has resulted in a currency crisis and stock exchange crash.
In a column to mark Khan’s 100 days in office, which fell a day after the Kartarpur ceremony, Imad Zafar wrote in the Express Tribune, one of Pakistan’s respected English daily, “During his campaign, Imran claimed to never approach the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and yet backtracked on this… as he approached Saudi Arabia and China, resulting in declining reserves and devaluation of the rupee against the US dollar, only for him to reach the conclusion that an IMF bailout was necessary. When they finally did approach the IMF, his financial team’s inefficiency delayed the approval and further worsened the currency crisis, and there remains no end in sight.”
But, even the PTI (Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf)’s sworn enemy, Nawaz Sharif’s PML(N), has been forced to welcome the Kartarpur move. The PTI used to accuse Sharif of being a friend of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, raising slogans such as “Modi ka jo yaar hai, gaddar hai (One who is Modi’s friend is a traitor)”. Following the Kartarpur ceremony, the Chairman of the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee, Mushahid Hussain, who belongs to the PML(N), told The Sunday Express, “The Kartarpur initiative is important for Pakistan-India ties for three reasons. First, since the holiest sites of Sikhism are in Pakistan, the Kartarpur corridor will give Sikhs visa-free access, fulfilling a long-standing demand. Second, the timing is important, given the fact that India and Pakistan are engaged in a war of words with no dialogue on any issue, thanks to Indian intransigence. Third, the Kartarpur initiative shows that both sides, without compromising on their core concerns and interests, can still take major decisions that promote people-to-people ties and defuse tensions….”
Speaking to The Sunday Express, Pakistan’s Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry underlines that Islamabad clearly has shown the will. “On both sides of the border, we have groups who support peace and groups who oppose the relationship. It’s the government’s choice which groups they support. By opening Kartarpur, the PTI government has given a clear message that we support peace.”
Adds Pakistan Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mohammed Faisal, “The need to move from conflict to cooperation and animosity to peace is an established reality. The Kartarpur spirit connecting hearts should extend to J&K… If we find the political will to implement the same, we can all be winners.”
On November 28, the PTI government ensured it got everything right. At the groundbreaking event, there were boards with graphics on how the corridor would be built, including over the Ravi river, what the amenities on offer would be, and even a timeline. The boards said the government had finished a survey of the area in November and begun land acquisition, was in the process of finalising designs by December, and would start start construction within days. It also promised completion of the corridor by October 2019, and operations by November 2019.
“These minute details showed that we are serious about implementing the corridor,” a senior Pakistan government officer says.
Later, as Khan met Indian journalists at his office in Islamabad, with Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s portrait behind him, he said, “Insaan koshish hi kar sakta hai (One can only try).”
But the Indian side says that in reality, there has been no communication from the Pakistan on the specifics. They are hoping for a meeting in the coming months.
Still, in a region bound by both the bitter Partition and the nostalgia for a shared past, which has seen many such moments come and go, Kartarpur, all over again, holds a promise. In the streets of Lahore, young Pakistanis have welcomed what is seen as the still-fresh Khan government’s potential to change the image of the country.
Sitting at ‘California Pizza’ joint with three women friends, one a doctor and the other two lecturers, PhD student Mariam Mubarik hints that Pakistan being linked to terrorism hurts. “Terrorism is a worldwide problem. We have suffered because of it, we are not terrorists.”
Near the posh Liberty Market in downtown Lahore, lecturers Maria Farooq and Aisha Saleem, and a doctor, Taiba Jameer, say Khan could live up to the high hopes with which they voted for him. “Change is always gradual,” Farooq says. “We feel that this is a good step. I think India should now reciprocate.”
The need to leave the past behind is also a recurring theme in Khan’s speeches. “Aap maazi main nain reh sakte. Aapko maazi se sabak seekhna hoga (We cannot live in the past, we should learn lessons from it),” he often says.
At Kartarpur, he only talked of that day. “Happiness I saw today was like of those Muslims who stand 4 km from Medina, on the other side of the border, but are unable to visit it. When they get a chance to visit it, the happiness they get is the happiness they are relishing today.”
Like everything about that day, no one could have faulted Khan on the words.
Away from the politics, the pilgrims were simply grateful. At the entrance of Gurdwara Kartarpur Sahib, hung a poster saying, “We warm welcome Prime Minister Imran Khan.”
Feb 1999: PM Vajpayee raises the Kartarpur issue with PM Sharif
2000: Pakistan agrees to allow Sikh from India visa-free access by constructing a bridge from the Indian side of the border to the shrine. Lt Gen Javed Nasir, president of the Pakistan Sikh Gurdwara Committee, proposes a corridor
Sep 2004: PM Manmohan Singh declares in Amritsar that Kartarpur corridor proposal will be taken up with Pakistan
2004-08: Kartarpur corridor was part of talks held between the two nations till 26/11 derailed the dialogue process
2011-12: Was discussed in talks again
Aug 2018: Proposal revived after discussions between Pakistan Army Chief General Bajwa and Navjot Singh Sidhu
Nov 22: Indian Cabinet approves Kartarpur corridor from Dera Baba Nanak to the Pakistan border
Nov 26: Vice President Venkaiah Naidu lays foundation for the corridor up to the International Border at an event at Mann village of Punjab’s Gurdaspur district
Nov 28: PM Imran Khan lays the foundation stone of the 4-km-long corridor