The 'Berlin Wall Collapse' That Modi Is Counting on to Win 16 Million Votes
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For the country’s 20 million Sikhs, the struggle to visit the religion’s holiest shrine has been a pain point for generations.
By Maroosha Muzaffar
In the border village of Dera Guru Nanak in Gurdaspur district in India’s Punjab, a few faithful have gathered hoping for darshan — to view the holy gurdwara or Sikh temple to seek blessings of the guru. But there’s no gurdwara — only a vast expanse of fields — visible to the naked eye. Sikhism’s holiest shrine, Gurdwara Darbar Sahib Kartarpur, where the founder of the religion, Guru Nanak, lived for 18 years, is 2.5 miles away — across the border in Pakistan.
Last November, that distance, a pain point for generations of Sikhs, appeared set to shrink when the leaders of India and Pakistan choreographed a rare moment of symphony. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi laid the foundation stone for a corridor connecting the village to the Kartarpur gurdwara in Narowal in Pakistan’s Punjab. Two days later, his Pakistani counterpart Imran Khan laid the foundation from his side of the border. Jointly, they announced plans to open the corridor to Sikh pilgrims for visa-free travel on the 550th birth anniversary of Guru Nanak in November 2019.
Modi has compared the construction of the corridor to the collapse of the Berlin Wall, and the initiative has emerged as the centerpiece of his ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) campaign for India’s 20 million Sikhs — 77 percent of them in Punjab — who have welcomed the project. Of them, 16 million are of voting age. India has proposed that 5,000 pilgrims be allowed to use the corridor each day, or 1.8 million annually. But the sharp deterioration in relations with Pakistan following the Feb. 14 terror attack that killed 40 Indian soldiers in Jammu and Kashmir is casting a shadow on the project.
The political significance of the project ahead of the coming elections is underscored by a series of charges and countercharges the BJP has traded with the Congress, India’s grand old party that has ruled the country for 54 out of India’s 72 years since independence. Modi has in more than 10 public rallies accused the Congress of ignoring Sikh sensitivities by allowing Kartarpur to go to Pakistan during the subcontinent’s 1947 partition and by not building a corridor earlier. The Congress, in opposition nationally but in power in Punjab, has accused the Modi government of slipping on post-November deadlines on the corridor construction. But the project needs Pakistan’s cooperation, and recent tensions threaten to derail its completion on time, experts say. While heightened war hysteria on the whole usually helps incumbent Indian governments — the last BJP government of Atal Behari Vajpayee returned to power in elections in 1999 after a brief war with Pakistan — a delay could undercut Modi’s appeal with Sikhs, says Charanjit Singh, a 65-year-old farmer in Dera Guru Nanak.
“If that happens, Sikhs will be very angry,” says Singh. “They will all vote for Congress then.”
The BJP recognizes that, and the government is trying to insulate the initiative from the border conflict. On March 14, a team from Pakistan visited India to hold negotiations on the exact contours of the project. But achieving a Berlin Wall pulldown in the middle of what is close to the equivalent of the Cuban Missile Crisis for India and Pakistan will take more than meetings: It’ll require a semblance of peace.
Even without actual access to the Kartarpur shrine — where Guru Nanak’s remains lie — more than 100 Sikh pilgrims gather every day at the border village, say officers of India’s Border Security Force (BSF) who keep a close watch. For darshan, the people of Dera Guru Nanak, a village with a population of 6,400, have installed binoculars. One by one the faithful line up, look into the lens to see a hazy outline of the gurdwara and say their prayers. Guru Nanak formalized Sikhism while at Kartarpur, says Anju Suri, a historian at Panjab University. That’s what makes the gurdwara the religion’s most sacred spot.
It’s also what makes the Kartarpur corridor a politically game-changing promise. Traditionally, the Sikh vote in India has swung between the Congress and an alliance between the BJP and its coalition partner in Punjab, the Akali Dal. The Akali Dal principally represents Sikh peasants. But the Congress has skeletons in its cupboard that the BJP–Akali Dal coalition frequently highlight to portray their opponent as anti-Sikh. In 1984, hundreds of Sikhs were massacred on the streets of Delhi after then Indian PM Indira Gandhi — of the Congress — was assassinated by two Sikh bodyguards. The party also made little effort to connect Kartarpur to India’s Punjab.
It was under the Vajpayee government in 1998 that India and Pakistan first discussed creating a Kartarpur corridor. But the idea never moved beyond initial talks — a fact that breeds cynicism in the minds of some locals. “We have been promised that Kartarpur corridor will be opened for a long time now,” says Charanjit Singh. The state Congress Chief Minister Amarinder Singh has also accused the Modi government of not releasing promised federal funds for the construction of the corridor since November. Jostling for Sikh votes, the state Congress administration has set up three expert panels to advise on preparations for the 550th-anniversary celebrations. Modi’s foreign minister, Sushma Swaraj, has meanwhile declared that the federal government will work with international partners to celebrate the anniversary globally as a “Universal Brotherhood Year.” Modi’s government has also accused the Punjab administration of delaying the corridor by not procuring land for the project so far.
Buying land off farmers won’t be easy. Religion’s well and good, but livelihood is important too. Kulwant Singh, a 25-year-old farmer, will need to give up 3 acres of farmland for the corridor. But while the government’s offering $40,000 per acre as compensation, farmers are demanding nearly thrice that amount. “I am happy to give the land for [the] guru, but the government needs to give us the right price,” Kulwant tells me. In all, 60 farmers are likely to lose land for the Kartarpur corridor.
For some in Dera Guru Nanak, the excitement over the project is also tinged with worries about the proximity of Pakistani soldiers and checkpoints that will crop up once the corridor is opened to the public. “It has been a dream to visit the Kartarpur gurdwara — but I am also scared that they will be so near us,” says a 63-year-old former army soldier also called Kulwant Singh.
Indeed, while the BJP and Congress exchange barbs over the project, Pakistan’s consent will be vital for the initiative, says Bhupinder Singh Brar, a veteran political scientist. “It was Imran Khan who made the initial move,” Brar says. “The BJP can’t claim sole credit.”
Kartar Singh, in his 90s, still dreams though. He was born in Pakistan and came to India in 1947. Visiting the Kartarpur gurdwara is his “last wish,” he says. While India’s Sikh community waits, pilgrims will have to use the binoculars to catch a glimpse of the gurdwara in Pakistan. The BSF will stand guard as a witness to the politics between the two neighbors, which could continue to deny a community’s prayers — or finally fulfill them.
- Maroosha Muzaffar, OZY Author Contact Maroosha Muzaffar