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12 December 2019, Gateway House

Kartarpur: a reunion of bliss

Kartarpur is an exemplary achievement of bilateral discussion over two decades. For the faithful, it is an emotional reconnection with the life of Guru Nanak, now made into a grand memorial. For others, on both sides of the border, it is a neutral place where they can renew contact with long-lost relatives. The author, who visited Kartarpur a month after its inauguration, was witness to the joy and aura of collective worship

Executive Director, Gateway House

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The Kartarpur Corridor is a development that both India and Pakistan can be proud of, spiritually, diplomatically and infrastructurally. The 4.2-km connector between the home of Guru Nanak, founder of Sikhism, in Gurdaspur, India and his home and place of death in Kartarpur, Narowal District, Pakistan, has been under bilateral discussion since 1999, between Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. But it only became a reality 20 years later, on November 9, in auspicious time for the 550th birth anniversary of the guru.

The wait was worthwhile in every way. A visit to Kartarpur on December 8, a month after it was opened, reveals the overwhelming joy from the Sikh and Hindu communities on both sides of the border. For Pakistani Sikhs, poor and largely isolated from their brethren in India, the gurdwara provides a neutral ground to catch up with a Sikhism that is progressive and international. For Indians and Sikhs from abroad who have had the Golden Temple to visit, but not the place of their guru’s birth or death, Kartarpur is akin to being able to worship at Ayodhya with an existing but unreachable temple, or being able to take the Haj to Mecca.

Diplomatically, this has perhaps been the quickest rollout of a bilateral agreement – nine months – at a time when there has been almost no positive engagement between India and Pakistan on any issue for decades. On this one, friendship and cricket took the lead and won. Navjot Singh Sidhu, the MP from east Amritsar, attended the inauguration of fellow cricketer Imran Khan as Prime Minister of Pakistan in August 2018, where he restarted the Vajpayee conversation on Kartarpur with Pakistani army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa. This was followed by the famous hug, and the foundation stones on the Indian and Pakistani sides were laid on November 26 and 28, 2018, respectively.A year later, on Oct 24, 2019, a bilateral agreement was signed between the two governments.

Since late last year, the infrastructure buildout has been in overdrive. The two countries have spent considerable funds – Rs. 3 crores by some estimates – on this development. News reports say Pakistan had a six-month lead as it had to acquire the land around the gurudwara. Guru Nanak tilled 104 acres of this land, gifted to him by Karoria, a Muslim landlord, in 1521. Over the centuries, it was reduced to 4 acres, with only the gurudwara, well, tombstone and memorial standing. The Pakistan government acquired 100 acres of land for the complex, and now it is almost back to the original. The land around is tilled by the locals and the produce is for the free langar (community kitchen) – just as Nanak had done 500 years ago.

The Kartarpur site was visible always from the Indian border at Gurdaspur – a speck in the distance. But now visibility is enhanced: a white, gleaming marble-and-paint, domed building with a vast compound, also laid in white marble, is easily seen from the border.

The virtual and physical infrastructure on both sides is excellent – so different from the painful and bureaucratic crossings from the Attari border. Virtually, an easy online application grants the day-long permission in exactly 20 days. Acceptance is not guaranteed – not deliberately, but because of server and other issues. Hopefully, those glitches will be ironed out. The visa is poetically granted ‘from dawn to dusk’ so pilgrims can travel to and fro any time and stay all day for the one-day visit. The transport is on-demand, and plenty of vehicles are ready to ferry visitors through the day.

Physically, both India and Pakistan have new buildings where the travel formalities are completed. India has built a fully-integrated check-post in Dera Baba Nanak, Gurdaspur, Punjab, with a dramatic lotus structure. It looks like a modern international airport. A full 50 immigration counters, manned by remarkably friendly home ministry officials are open for pilgrims, with helpful staff – and yes, polio drops are necessary and quickly administered.

Both sides are environmentally aware. An electric golf cart carries pilgrims to the border with Pakistan, where, upon crossing the white gates, the Indians are welcomed warmly by Pakistani immigration officials and Rangers. From there, another electric golf cart takes visitors to Pakistan customs, also a new structure, but not yet an integrated check-post. Passports and e-visas checked, $20 paid, visitors step into a bus – just like the commuter buses at airports – which speeds down the beautifully laid black tar strip of the estimated 3 km to the gates of the Kartarpur temple.

A new road is a new chance.

It is almost as if the pilgrims cannot wait to reach the small temple, built on the ground where Nanak died. For them, it is a reunion of bliss, with many overwhelmed by tears of joy, joining in the singing, in the reading of the book, the Sikhs and other pilgrims from India and Pakistan intermingling and in unison with their faith. On a recent Sunday, the book is read by a devotee from the Dera Baba Nanak in Gurdaspur – he is a descendant of Guru Nanak, and his face is transfused with happiness.

The morning prayer closes with the ardas, a retelling of the story of Nanak – and here it includes the momentous opening of this corridor, as if it cannot be told often enough. Everyone is quiet and riveted. Many Indians record the delivery on their phones to play back to their families this historic moment.

For most Indians, this is the first time they have set foot in Pakistan – and it is straight on sacred soil. For those, particularly Sindhis and Punjabis, who are returning after the Partition or later, it is especially emotional. All fears of the ‘other’ vanish. There are some Pakistani visitors too – students from Lahore, Sikhs from across the country, and many ordinary citizens seeking a reunion with their lost Indian cousins. At langar, Nusrat and her four children who have come from Sialkot, say they have paid Rs. 200 per head to come to Kartarpur to meet her maternal uncle, who is joining them from Jammu. The family has not met in 40 years. The young students look at the Indians a little like they were curios – and are happy to find they are quite alike.

A small bazaar is set up in the complex for Indian pilgrims to eat and shop: here are touristy offerings, mainly, but still, an embroidered cap or two from Sindh are beautiful souvenirs.

It is almost hard to leave Kartarpur. Even sitting in the sun, silently, is worship. Reluctantly, the Indian pilgrims return to Gurdaspur as efficiently as they arrived. They are enveloped by the aura of the worship; it will linger for a long time, for days – much the way it does after a visit to the inner shrine of the Golden Temple, to Kashi, to the Vatican, to Mecca. The sacred resident in the human is evident.

There are still very few pilgrims using the corridor. Both the Indian and Pakistani governments expected 5,000 border crossings per day; they are prepared for 10,000. But so far there are just 500 a day, on average. On a Sunday it has increased to 1,400 visitors on both sides. The presence of 5,000 daily visitors from India to Kartarpur will overwhelm Pakistan’s meagre tourist numbers – 17,823 a year in 2018. It will also provide much-needed foreign currency – at $20 per visitor per day, that’s $36.5 million in income per year for Pakistan. Pakistan is on the negative advisory list of nearly all governments, so tourism is a non-existent industry despite the country’s natural beauty and many historical monuments.

It is ironic that Pakistan has chosen to open up religious tourism to help revive its tourist sector. Last year, the Buddhist trail from Swat to Taxila was opened, with mostly monks as visitors. This year, Kartarpur-Gurdaspur has been inaugurated. Nankana Sahib, the birthplace of Guru Nanak, 3 hours from Kartarpur, is on the agenda, as is the Sharada Peeth temple in the Neelam Valley near the Line of Control in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir.

Prime Minister Imran Khan understands better than his military that the path to peace and prosperity depends on opening the doors of faith and tolerance.

Manjeet Kripalani is Co-founder and Executive Director, Gateway House.

This blog was exclusively written for Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations. You can read more exclusive content here.

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