When Navjot Singh Sidhu, a former cricket player, TV personality, and now Minister for Tourism in the Indian state of Punjab, was seen hugging the Chief of Pakistan’s Army General Qamar Javed Bajwa, Indian media went in a frenzy. The history of rivalry between the two nations has been well documented, and immortalised in 3 major wars since 1960. So when in August 2018, Imran Khan, the cricketer-turned Prime Minister of Pakistan, invited his old friend Mr. Sidhu to his swearing-in ceremony, many expected he would turn down the invitation. Mr. Sidhu’s boss and Punjab Chief Minister Capt. Amrinder Singh had already done so. Furthermore, in an election year when his Indian National Congress party was fighting hard to dethrone Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janta Party from power, friendly gestures could easily be spun as a weakness. But since then, Mr. Sidhu has transitioned from being the recipient of a diatribe to the harbinger of positivity – much to the angst of his boss, Mr. Singh.
Through the Looking Glass
Despite the partition of British India, and the rivalry between India and Pakistan, cultural realities have been hard to ignore. Numerous sites of religious, spiritual or socio-political significance to members of one country are located in another. For the Sikhs, who constitute a major sect primarily centred in the Indian state of Punjab, one such place is Gurdwara of Kartarpur Sahib. Located on the Pakistan side of Punjab, the shrine is significant for Sikhism because Guru Nanak – the founder of Sikhism – lived in Kartarpur for eighteen years. It is said that the present-day Gurudwara was built at the site where Guru Nanak died on September 22, 1539. It was at this place that Guru Nanak settled and assembled some of the first members of the Sikh community. The history of Sikhism is filled with stories of Guru Nanak's pious deeds at Kartarpur, and the beginning of the tradition of Guru ka Langer – a practice of feeding the poor through community kitchens, and voluntary service that continues to this day. Located only 5km from the Indo-Pakistan border, it stands close to the border the Indian village of Dera Baba Nanak. To facilitate this, the Govt. of Pakistan cuts through the long standing grass on their side of the border, and pilgrims on the Indian side use binoculars to look at the shrine.
The Row Over Kartarpur
For decades, devotees have been demanding a corridor to allow visa free travel for Indian devotees to visit the shrine and return with ease. At a governmental level, the corridor was first suggested when former Indian PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee started a bus-service from Amritsar (India), to Lahore (Pakistan), as a gesture of friendship in 1999. But the outbreak of the Kargil conflict broke the momentum.
Following Mr. Sidhu’s public announcement of his lobbying with the Indian Minister for External Affairs and the Chief of Pakistan’s Army, the Cabinet of Prime Minister Narendra Modi approved a 3-4 km long corridor for the shrine, and promised to work on making arrangements for visas. Pakistan joined in. As India and Pakistan both declared to operationalise a visa-free corridor between Dera Baba Nanak in Indian Punjab, and Kartarpur Sahib in Pakistan’s Punjab. On November 27, 2018, India’s Vice-President M Venkaiah Naidu, and Punjab Chief Minister Capt. Singh attended the ground-breaking ceremony for the corridor on the Indian side. The next day, Pakistan conducted the ceremony on its side, Mr. Sidhu was invited.
Nothing that happens in the relations between India and Pakistan can escape the politics and sensationalism in both countries. However, with elections around the corner and the internal credit war in Punjab’s state government between Mr. Sidhu and his boss Mr. Singh heating up, the political storm in India was far greater. The ruling government of PM Modi’s BJP, was ousted from power in the state of Punjab last year, along with its regional partner, the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD). It needs the state for the general elections in 2019 and has been trying to garner support from the Sikh community.
There were speculations about the BJP pushing forth the ceremony of the foundation stone in a hurry without adequate preparations to prove their competence over managing the relationship with Pakistan. Opposition members alleged that the haste on part of the Modi Government was to beat Pakistan. The Rural and Urban Development Minister in the Punjab Government – which is run by the Opposition Congress Party – Mr. Rajinder Singh Bajwa protested against the manner of arrangements for the function by the Centre saying,
"Punjab leaders and ministers have not been given any space."
He added that not only the local Congress leaders, but even the ministers from Gurdaspur district have been “ignored".
Mr. Navjot Singh Sidhu.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi likened the Kartarpur road corridor to a bridge between the people of India and Pakistan. To underline the importance of the corridor, the PM referred to the fall of the Berlin Wall. But the hopes of friendship were undercut when the Punjab Chief Minister declined to accept Pakistan's invite for the ceremony on their side of the border, explaining that it was in protest against the terrorists attacking his state from across the border. His minister Mr. Sidhu however, attended the ceremony. The External Affairs Minister in Prime Minister Modi’s cabinet, Ms. Sushma Swaraj, thanking the Pakistan government for an invite to her, advised two other union ministers Harsimrat Kaur and HS Puri, to represent India at the ceremony instead.
The fact that India and Pakistan both, have agreed to open the Kartarpur corridor shows that confrontation between the two countries can be put at rest in the future. The BJP lost 3 important state elections recently, but remains the main contender for 2019’s national polls and is leaving no stone unturned to garner as many votes as possible. The Kartarpur project will hopefully allow India and Pakistan to engage in a positive and peaceful manner and serve as a reminder that there is still a chance for humanity to reconcile what the partition created. It’s a corridor of hope.
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About the Author
Rehana Iftikhar holds a graduate degree in Journalism and mass communication from Lady Shri Ram College for women, University of Delhi. She has done a Diploma course in Print and Electronic Media. Rehana previously worked with an online magazine, The Qurius, formerly known as The Indian Economist. She loves to read books and is a fierce voice for environmental and animal protection.