Kartarpur is nearly three hours away from Lahore. One has to get off the GT road or motorway and spend nearly two hours on a bumpy road that connects you to Narrowal district and eventually to Kartarpur, which is famously on the Indian border.
This was a rare occasion. Just a few days after the Gurupurab, when about 6,000 pilgrims had gathered from all over the world, the same group was now due for the gathering where Prime Minister Imran Khan was set to lay the foundation of the Kartarpur Corridor.
The corridor was presented as an idea over two decades ago, and people brought it up often in their speeches. But this year, after Imran Khan took an oath and the new promise unfolded with Navjot Singh Sidhu after he hugged the Chief of Army Staff, the corridor has started to become a reality only in the past few months.
The speeches and politics
This is the first event I have attended with the Prime Minister coming. He was escorted by a dozen or so ministers and other VIPs. The Chief of Army Staff, General Qamar Javed Bajwa—arguably the most powerful man in Pakistan—was also present. The gurdwara was sealed for the from several kilometres away for the Prime Minister’s arrival, and the security wanted our bus—six buses provided by the government took a hundred or journalists from Lahore to Kartarpur—to walk to the gurdwara. The older journalists refused, and we got into a tussle with the military personnel there who finally gave in. The multiple-layered security was also not letting anyone in without required invites and documentation, and not allowing anyone to move outside the venue either.
We reached at about 12.30 pm. The large tent hall was divided into two parts. The front section was for the media and the dignitaries. The second division was for the pilgrims, and there were screens all over the venue to show Imran Khan inaugurating the corridor. Journalists and the public were not allowed there. The person on the podium was asking everyone to stand when “Izzat maaf wazir-e-Azam Imran Khan” arrived as if he didn’t quite believe Imran Khan was actually welcome.
Khan’s arrival was shown on the screens, and the host once again asked us to stand. He inaugurated the corridor and then came to the hall, gliding across the front seats and shaking hands with everyone, before settling next to Pakistan’s foreign minister and Navjot Singh Sidhu, who was regally dressed in a purple turban and black waistcoat.
A documentary was played, starting off by explaining the white part of the Pakistani flag. The white part represents the minorities. Many liberals criticise this distinction between Pakistanis on the grounds of religion. But clearly, the documentary makers hadn’t spent much time pondering over secularism and liberals. The documentary had stunning visuals of the green fields and the gurdwara. It also promised new development and modernisation of the area.
Sidhu went on to give the same eloquent and sentimental speech that he is known for and that resonates with Punjabis across the borders. He wasn’t going to stop had the host not interfered. Harsimrat Kaur Badal was also very obliged and gave an impassioned, tearful speech about Kartarpur. She emphasised how close the gurdwara is from there and how deeply her community members felt this tiny distance.
The ‘K’ word
Imran Khan’s speech was tactless and boisterous, as usual. When it comes to his style and bravado, he doesn’t seem to have progressed from the days he was protesting against the previous government. The speech was well-intentioned and candid. I wish he had said something about the philosophy of Guru Nanak, not mentioned the nuclear bombs, and worded that statement on Kashmir carefully. Though I agree, the “K” word took the attention away from the other K word—Kartarpur.
By the time Imran Khan spoke, there was some relief on our part because it had been a long day already. The food for guests was in the tent opposite this one, and the diet was vegetarian. Most of us had to make do with curry without any rice or naan but were happy to receive what we did.
The 25 Indian journalists
A group of journalists was invited, issued visas and arrived in Pakistan as a group. This was a fantastic idea because getting the news about Pakistan and the peace process across to the Indian public has been a challenge in recent years. The group included big names like Rajdeep Sardesai, Barkha Dutt, Suhasini Haider, and Jyoti Malhotra, among others. They represented almost all the leading English publications and channels. Some representatives of regional news outlets from Punjab and other places were there too.
Immediately after the ceremony, they spoke to Harsimrat Kaur and took Hardeep Singh Puri (Minister of Housing and Urban Affairs) to task by surrounding him and asking him the toughest of questions: is the government underplaying Kartarpur, is it keeping it separate from the peace process, how will it go about constructing the corridor? I have never seen a minister being grilled so intensely, and he barely managed to escape this cohort which was also live on social media at that moment.
The group covered the event in detail and, after the ceremony, went to the gurdwara to talk to the pilgrims. The next day they were driven to Islamabad to speak to the Prime Minister where Barkha Dutt clarified his stance on Kashmir. Meanwhile, Rajdeep Sardesai spoke to youngsters in Islamabad about what they think of India and Pakistan and their questions. Many people lauded his efforts to bring their perspective to Indian television.
The incredible gurdwara
When the gurdwara was finally opened after the ceremony, the pilgrims flocked into it. Lengthy lines formed outside for the langar. The Maharaja of Patiala built this gurdwara to commemorate Guru Nanak some decades before the Partition, and it is located on the side of the River Ravi.
The pilgrims sat down in lines on mats and started eating—usually a roti with some gravy on it without any utensils. Some sat on the rucksacks behind the wall and ate from metal plates. Many pressed their foreheads onto the well said to be Guru Nanak’s source of water for the last decades of his life. There were also two trees in the courtyard and a free medical camp that gave me free paracetamol for my headache. Some people were on the rooftop, taking photos and looking into the Indian side with binoculars. Urdu banners across the gurdwara welcome the Sikh pilgrims. There were hundreds of journalists—taking pictures, recording sound bites and videos, and speaking to people.
A journey of 70 years
Kartarpur is in Shakargarh Tehsil, the only tehsil of Gurdaspur which was transferred to Pakistan. My grandfather was born and raised in Gurdaspur, and he used to visit this tehsil as a child. The wheat fields, trees and canals seemed to have changed little since his childhood.
On one of my trips to the bathroom which was across the gurdwara, I met an old Sikh man and his wife who were from my village in India, Fatehgarh Churian. I was ecstatic and sad at the same time. My grandfather, who died a few years ago, couldn’t cross to the other side and visit his village just a few kilometres away. And here was this aged couple—the woman who was my grandmother’s age and could barely walk had taken this trip on the train after so much documentation and under all this surveillance. This place was theirs to begin with, and their village was mine for centuries. All my known paternal forefathers and mothers were from there.
No politician and speech can return to Punjab and the rest of South Asia what it lost during Partition. This bridge and corridor is a passage to opportunities, to return to us only a fraction of what was collectively lost in 1947. The fact that the two countries took 70 years to bridge these four kilometres is even more appalling and a bit comical too. The corridor should not just be built and welcomed with fervour on both sides but also, we as the public should ensure that it is never closed. No conflict or politics should prevent anyone from visiting the last abode of Guru Nanak.
The sun was setting. Before we left the venue, my colleagues and I stopped at the landmark inaugurated by Imran Khan today. It was decorated with green and white balloons on one side and orange, white and green balloons on the other side. The landmark looked like a leaf made of concrete and lined with golden metal. It carried the name of Imran Khan. The Prime Minister and politicians were whisked away by the security soon after the speeches.
In the background was the gurdwara which is said to be the last resting place of Guru Nanak. He must have been witness to this tsunami of cameras, armed security personnel, helicopters and VIP protocols. He must have found this hullabaloo amusing. The lush fields and trees around the gurdwara seem to have changed little since his time and certainly, very little has changed since my grandfather’s childhood. The Guru must have seen a lot in those five centuries, including the chaos of Partition and the silence that followed it. He must have understood that this is but a fleeting moment in the eternal flow of time, just like Partition was a passing event, and so was this division between the people on both the sides. Hopefully, a lot more pilgrims will grace the temple for much more extended periods and unlike now, the gurdwara will remain festive all year. May this corridor of hope open soon and never close again.