India and Pakistan, amid the bilateral tensions, took a decision to open the Kartarpur Sahib Corridor for the pilgrims to visit Gurdwara Durbar Sahib that is located in Narowal district in Pakistan’s Punjab province. Kartarpur Sahib is the Shrine of revered Sikh Guru Nanak Dev ji, the founder of Sikhism. Sri Guru Nanak Dev ji preached at Kartarpur Sahib for eighteen years. It is also his final resting place. The opening is planned in November to coincide with the 550th birth anniversary of the first Sikh Guru. In November last year, the Indian government cleared the construction of a four lane corridor from Dera Baba Nanak in India’s Gurdaspur District to the International Border.
There are around 173 Sikh Shrines in Pakistan. Sikh pilgrims from India have access to only few of them as agreed under the 1974 bilateral protocol agreed between India and Pakistan that allows pilgrims to visit religious shrines located in each other’s territory.
Earlier, the Sikh pilgrims could have ‘darshan’ of the Gurdwara Darbar Sahib using binoculars installed at Dera Baba Nanak at the border. Pakistan only allowed limited number of pilgrims who could visit Pakistan on four occasions like the Baisakhi festival, martyrdom day of Guru Arjan Dev ji, death anniversary of Maharaja Ranjit Singh and birth anniversary of Guru Nanak Dev ji.
The proposal to link the Darbar Sahib Shrine through a corridor to make it accessible to Sikh pilgrims from India is an old proposal. India had proposed the construction of a corridor during the then Prime Minister Vajpayee’s historic bus journey to Lahore, after restoration work was carried out at Kartarpur Sahib in 1999, The same year, Pakistan also established the Pakistan Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee under the Chairmanship of Lt. Gen. Javid Nasir, a former DG of ISI ostensibly to give Pakistani Sikhs the autonomy to run their places of worship. However this organisation functions under Pakistan Evacuee Trust Property Board and is hardly autonomous.
After Pakistan announced that it is ready to open the Kartarpur corridor to facilitate Sikh pilgrims to visit Gurdwara Darbar sahib, both the countries held their first meeting at Attari in March this year to discuss the modalities of operationalizing thecorridor. However two points have remained sticky. Pakistan says it would introduce a permit system and levy a fee of $20 on the pilgrims wanting to visit the Shrine. Pakistan’s main argument is that the money raised through this fee would be for maintenance of the corridor. India continues to press for free access, as it may deprive poor people from visiting the holy Shrine. Another major point of difference is India’s request for consular and protocol officers to accompany the pilgrims. In the past, officials from Indian High Commission were prevented to meet Sikh pilgrims visiting Panja Sahib and Nanakana Sahib Gurdwaras by Islamabad, citing security reasons.
Both countries have agreed for a visa-free visit, but the pilgrims are required to carry their passport and register online. Though India had requested permission for 10,000 pilgrims per day, it was finally agreed to allow 5,000 pilgrims to visit the Shrine each day and allow more people on special occasions.
However, there are certain anti-Indian elements who want to leverage the presence of pilgrims in Kartarpur Sahib and seek their support for subversive activities in India backed by Pakistan. This is a major concern for India. Pakistan in the past was behind militancy in Punjab and may stroke the fires of militancy again. The corridor project had become controversial after Pakistan appointed a well-known anti-India element based in Pakistan, Gopal Singh Chawla as a member of the Kartarpur Organizing Committee. Chawla has been an organizer for militants and is a banned entity in many countries.
Opening of the Kartarpur Corridor that connects pilgrims to one of the holiest Shrines of the Sikhs is a significant step. It is hoped that this corridor will emerge as a ‘Corridor of Peace’ in the turbulent bilateral relations that currently exist.
Script: Dr. Smruti S Pattanaik, Strategic Analyst on South Asia