Earlier this month, I had an opportunity to visit the Gurdwara Darbar Sahab in Kartarpur which is located in Narowal district, about four hours from Lahore by road. The Gurdwara is considered the second holiest site in Sikhism as it is believed to be the place where Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism, spent the last 18 years of his life. The Gurdwara — which means a “gateway to the guru” — thus holds tremendous religious and sentimental value to the Sikh community.
To enter from the Pakistani side, one has to cross four barriers. The first is the entry to the car parking area. Here visitors must show their identification and get their vehicles checked before they can enter. Those on foot also follow the same procedure. Once inside the car park, the visitors then buy a ticket at the special counters for this purpose. On the payment of Rs200, a coupon is issued and one lines up for another round of checking before boarding a coaster that takes you to the Gurdwara. At the Gurdwara itself, prior to entry, visitors must register themselves and are given a plastic tag to wear. The tag is given after a fingerprint scan so that the only person who can return it is the one whose fingerprints match with the tag. It is intelligent use of technology.
Once inside the complex, you are free to go and see what you want. The complex itself is slowly emerging — a massive structure for accommodation is still under construction as are other sections. By and large the complex has become functional. There is a huge courtyard here in the middle of which sits the actual Gurdwara which is a modest building. Most Pakistanis who come here, come out of curiosity. Many of them have never seen Indians, let alone Sikhs. I’m sure the same is the case with the people coming from the other side of the border. It is interesting to see the two sides talk — reluctantly at first and then with ease and confidence with the passage of time.
Unlike the Pakistanis, the Indians are mostly pilgrims who come here for a specific purpose. For them this means going through a series of rituals. Despite this, they are happy to talk and exchange pleasantries.
A short distance away from the Gurdwara complex is the amenities area. Here several shops offer souvenirs as well as food and drinks as well as currency exchange. The prices are reasonable, and the food is largely edible. Out of respect for the Gurdwara, meat in any form is not served here. The dishes are all vegetarian.
While the Indians are keen buyers of items which they take back with them on the same day, there is little for Pakistanis to buy here as souvenirs. But for us the main attraction is the fact that so many Indians come over on day trips and one can go and see how they are enjoying Pakistani hospitality. Pakistanis do not get to see the Kartarpur corridor itself which is a 2.5 mile stretch. The corridor leads directly from the Indian border to the gurdwara with its sides fenced off, confining travel to the shrine only.
The demand for visa-free travel to the shrine by the Sikh community has existed since the Partition of the Sub-continent in 1947. In the corridor’s absence, travelers had to cover an arduous, approximately 78-mile journey instead and under strict visa regulations. Former Indian prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee proposed a visa-free corridor back in 1999 when he undertook a historic bus journey from Delhi to Lahore to normalise relations with Pakistan. In 2000, after being refurbished by the Pakistani government, the Kartarpur shrine was opened to Indians but only those holding a valid visa, who could visit in restricted numbers. Soon after the Imran Khan government assumed office, it announced that it would set up the corridor, catalysing the construction process on Pakistan’s side. Today, hundreds of people visit from both sides without visas.
The biggest surprise is that the corridor had become functional. The Kartarpur Corridor holds the potential to foster religious tourism, promote people-to-people contact to reduce the trust deficit on both sides, and in turn perhaps aid dispute resolution by keeping avenues of dialogue open. Let us hope both countries open more such places in the coming days.
Published in The Express Tribune, December 23rd, 2019.
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