At 'Berlin Wall' on India-Pak border, faith trumps nationalism

Work underway on the Kartarpur corridor on the Pakistani side of the border. Balakot, surgical strikes and nationalistic rhetoric have faded in anticipation of the upcoming visa-free Kartarpur corridor Photo: Sai Manish
One could mistake it for another under-construction flyover in an Indian city if it wasn’t for two fences and the no-man’s land in between. 

At Dera Baba Nanak, on the international border between India and Pakistan, a bunch of Sikh pilgrims have ascended the viewpoint where till recently the Border Security Force (BSF) had installed a pair of binoculars. Sikh pilgrims, through the binoculars, could get a view of the Gurudwara roughly 4 km across the fence in Pakistan’s Kartarpur town and say a silent prayer looking at the place where Guru Nanak, the first Sikh guru, spent the last days of his life.

Earlier this month, the BSF dismantled the binoculars and a private company moved heavy machines to demolish structures and start work on the Indian side of the Kartarpur corridor. Even without the binoculars, Sikh pilgrims who trickle in on a hot and dusty day can see the Gurudwara. Also on display across the fence is the impressive progress made by the Pakistanis on the corridor. Three huge structures, which would eventually be permit-issuing points for Indian pilgrims, dot the Pakistani side and fields have been flattened to lay the asphalt.

On the Indian side, work seems to be much slower. Large tracts of agricultural land on either side of the road leading to the border fence have been acquired by the central government. JCB machines of a private company are laying the groundwork for an elevated road, which will loop over the fence on to non-man’s land joining the tarmac being laid by the Pakistanis. By November this year, this exercise will see the first and only visa-free access to the Pakistani side for Indian citizens. Both the Indian and Pakistan governments have asserted the entire Kartarpur corridor, linking Dera Baba Nanak with the Gurudwara at Kartarpur, will be ready before November this year — the 550th birth anniversary of Guru Nanak. 

Most political parties have tried to leverage the progress on the Kartarpur corridor as their political achievement. Congressman Navjot Sidhu and Harsimrat Badal of the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) were at the ceremony when Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan laid the foundation stone for the project in November last year. A few days before the inauguration, Prime Minister Narendra Modi likened the opening of the Kartarpur corridor to the falling of the Berlin Wall in 1989. 

Amandeep Singh, a young pilgrim who has brought his grandmother from Batala to view the shrine, said, “For years, we have been silently praying to set our feet at Darbar Sahib in Kartarpur. Our prayers have been answered.” When asked who he would credit for the progress, he said, “It is a matter of faith for us. This was a political decision that was taken long ago. But it is only in recent months that I have seen machines and men at work and some real progress.” 

Sukhdev Singh, the panthi (priest) at the small Gurudwara on the Indian side of the fence, said, “Ardaas (prayers) started here in 2002. Since then the number of pilgrims coming here has increased. No tension on the border creates an impact on pilgrims here. They have always come to catch a glimpse of Darbar Sahib and will always do. Once this corridor opens, Sikhs from all over the world can come to Baba Dera Nanak and go further.” 

With the prospect of a pilgrim boom and progress of road construction on the Indian side, expectations are rising. At present, there are two toy shops and a souvenir shop run by elderly residents of Dera Baba Nanak and surrounding villages at the border viewpoint. One of them is Shafiq, a toy seller in his 80s. He has been selling toys at the border post to pilgrims most of his life. His earnings from the shop support his family and supplement his Rs 700 a month pension. On a good day, he makes Rs 250. Shafiq said, “I have been asked to move my shop elsewhere by the construction company. What will I do till the time the corridor opens? And even when the corridor opens, the government will rent land for shops to others. I have to do something as long as I am alive.”

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