LAHORE: In a landmark peace move, the Pakistan government opens the Kartarpur Corridor today, for the followers of Guru Nanak, allowing them to visit the revered Sikh Guru's final resting place without a visa.
The 3-kilometer corridor provides visa-free access to Sikh pilgrims, allowing them to travel to Gurudwara Darbar Sahib in Kartarpur, where Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism, spent the final years of his life. The passage links Narowal district to Dera Baba Nanak in Gurdaspur in Punjab, India.
The project, touted by many as the 'corridor of peace' between the two arch-rivals, was completed in a record period of eleven months by Islamabad.
The two nuclear rivals laid the foundation stones for the Kartarpur corridor last year. Proposed during former Indian prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee's 1999 visit, the project remained on the back burner for decades due to the fluctuating ties between the two nations.
Starting today, the Kartarpur corridor will allow thousands of Sikh devotees to perform religious rituals at the shrine. Earlier, Sikh pilgrims had to travel by road to Lahore and then to Narowal to perform their rituals at the Gurudwara Darbar Sahib.
In pictures: Pakistan readies Gurdwara Darbar Sahib for Sikh pilgrims
Saturday's inauguration will take place in the presence of former Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh, Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh, Congress leader Navjot Singh Sidhu, Actor Sunny Deol, Union Ministers Hardeep Singh Puri, and Harsimrat Kaur Badal. The delegation will arrive at the Gurudwara Darbar Sahib using the Kartarpur corridor.
The grand opening of the cross-border project comes at a time when Pakistan-India ties are at their lowest. New Delhi's hostile policies towards Kashmir and Pakistan created several road-blocks. However, despite the current hostile climate, the Pakistan government managed to complete the project just in time for the 550th birth anniversary of Guru Nanak.
Concession for peace
Ahead of the inauguration, Prime Minister Imran Khan waived the USD 20 for those coming to Kartarpur for the 550th birth anniversary of the Sikh Guru.
"For Sikhs coming for the pilgrimage to Kartarpur from India, I have waived off two requirements: 1) they won't need a passport — just a valid ID; 2) they no longer have to register 10 days in advance. Also, no fee to be charged on the day of inauguration and Guruji's 550th birthday," the prime minister tweeted earlier this month.
In an official statement on the eve of the inauguration, the prime minister congratulated the Sikh community on both sides of the border.
"The inauguration of Kartarpur Corridor is a manifestation of the fact that our hearts are always open for the followers of different religions as enjoined by our great religion and envisioned by our Father of the Nation," the prime minister said.
"This unprecedented gesture of goodwill from the Government of Pakistan is a reflection of our deep respect for Baba Guru Nanak Dev Ji and religious sentiments of the Sikh community," the statement added.
Despite being punctuated by frequent snags, Pakistan has earned praise from the Sikh community for opening the passage in time for the important religious event this month. Sikh devotees from the other side of the border are hopeful the corridor project will defuse the tensions between the two nations.
Sikhism originated in the Punjab region. But independence from the British rule resulted in dividing the followers of the monotheistic religion, and its holiest sites. After partition in 1947, Pakistan became home to more than 150 sacred Sikh sites. Each year, followers of Guru Nanak converge on Punjab to visit holy sites in the province.
The province is home to several gurdwaras. Over the last seven decades, Pakistan has restored over 20 places of worship. Situated approximately 90 kilometers west of the city of Lahore, the Janam Asthan Nankana Sahib is another spot that draws millions of Sikh followers from all over the world. The gurudwara, also known as Nankana Sahib, was built on the birth site of Guru Nanak.
Other important gurdwaras include the Dera Sahab in Lahore and Gurdwara Punja Sahab Hasan Abdal, where Sikh devotees from across the globe visit and perform religious rituals.
Arrival and preparations
Sikh pilgrims started arriving last month. In the run up to the big day on November 12, which marks the birth anniversary of the Sikh Guru, the Pakistan government has made detailed security and medical arrangements for the visiting devotees. The Sikh visitors are expected to leave after November 14. On Friday, Punjab Governor Chaudhry Mohammad Sarwar praised the government's role in making adequate arrangements for the visitors.
Although the Kartarpur Corridor appears to be an isolated move towards peace with little or no impact on other bilateral disputes due to India's stiff position on Kashmir, it opens doors to religious tourism bonanza for the country.
Commenting on the cross-border passage, Punjab Governor said "religious tourism can bring up to $5 billion to the national kitty every year," The government plans to renovate other sites to promote religious tourism in Pakistan.
With additional reporting from Bilal Ghouri