Kartarpur Sahib Corridor: Who Should Truly Get Credit For This?

The praise should all go to selfless efforts of activists like Bhabhishan Singh Goraya, Gurinder Singh Bajwa & more.

6 min read
There is a fight for who takes credit for the Kartarpur Sahib Corridor.

(This story was first published on 9 November 2019 and is being reposted from The Quint's archives to mark the first anniversary of the inauguration of the Kartarpur Corridor.)

The importance of Kartarpur Sahib Corridor becoming reality cannot be emphasised enough. For many Sikhs in India, it is an answer to decades of prayers to visit the gurudwara where Guru Nanak spent the last 18 years of his life.

Until now, all they were permitted was a glimpse at the gurudwara through binoculars on the Indian side of the border at Dera Baba Nanak.

Besides the loss of life and property, one of the biggest wounds of Partition for Sikhs was being deprived of some of the holiest shrines associated with Guru Nanak, such as Nankana Sahib and Kartarpur Sahib. The Kartapur Sahib Corridor is a rather belated redressal to their grief.

Given the importance of this moment for Sikhs, the politics playing out around the Kartarpur Sahib issue is tragic. However, given the competitive nature of Punjab politics, it is not entirely surprising that various political actors are using the occasion to score political points.

PM Narendra Modi

Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan left his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi in a bit of a dilemma by taking the lead on making Kartarpur Sahib reality.

Having won the 2019 Lok Sabha elections on a strong anti-Pakistan plank, Modi was still forced to concede to the corridor for fear of losing support among Sikhs.

Modi is keen to take credit for the corridor. This is important for the BJP’s effort to expand its hold in Punjab.

Modi also wants to showcase the corridor internationally as proof of his “statesmanship” and as a counter-allegation of being against minorities.

However, Modi has had to strike a balance in order to retain the anti-Pakistan card that has worked for him politically. It is for this reason that he has chosen to inaugurate a transit terminus on the Indian side instead of going to the gurudwara itself to pay his respects.

Punjab CM Captain Amarinder Singh

Punjab Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh appears to have been caught between two stools. He couldn’t openly oppose the corridor as it would have alienated Sikh voters, for whom this is a huge achievement.

On the other hand, Captain has consistently been calling the entire project a ploy by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence to revive the Khalistan movement. He made this point even as recently as this week after Pakistan’s official video welcoming Sikh pilgrims had a glimpse of a poster of Khalistan icons like Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, General Shabeg Singh and Bhai Amrik Singh.

Captain’s stance on this matter has been even more hawkish than that of the Modi government and he has received a great deal of support from national security hawks as well as pro-Hindutva voices.

Political observers in Punjab say this is Captain’s way of winning over Punjab’s Hindu vote bank, which has a tendency of shifting decisively one way or the other, shaping electoral results in Punjab. In 2017, Hindu voters had decisively backed the Captain-led Congress but in 2019, many of them shifted to Modi’s BJP.

However, in doing so, Captain has wound up upsetting many Sikhs. Many of them now accuse Captain as well as national security hawks and Hindutva voices of trying to scuttle what is a huge moment for the community.

Akali Dal

The Akali Dal had spared no opportunity to attack Navjot Singh Sidhu, whose attendance at Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan’s swearing-in ceremony revived the project last year.

However, as time passed, the Akalis realised the project had huge support among Sikh masses and changed their approach.

Even after Captain slammed the video from Pakistan calling it an ISI conspiracy, the Akalis remained more or less muted.

In the entire episode, the Akalis tried to send the signal that being the main Panthic party, they understand the Sikh sentiment better than the Congress.

However, it is difficult to say whether this would address the anger that exists in Punjab against the Akalis on issues like the Bargari sacrilege and Kotkapura firing.

Navjot Singh Sidhu

For many in Punjab, Navjot Singh Sidhu has emerged as the hero of the Kartarpur Sahib issue. This is partially true. While Sikh organisations have been raising this demand for decades now, it was Sidhu’s visit to Pakistan last year and his meetings with Prime Minister Imran Khan and Army Chief Qamar Bajwa that proved to be crucial in making it reality.

According to Axis and India Today’s opinion poll ahead of the Lok Sabha elections, Congress’ success in Punjab was largely due to Sidhu’s popularity after the Kartarpur Sahib issue. The party did well even as it performed poorly across the country and despite Captain’s dipping popularity as CM.

The survey said 42 percent of the respondents in Punjab credit Sidhu for the Kartarpur Sahib corridor as opposed to 15 percent and 14 percent who credited PM Modi and CM Amarinder Singh respectively.

Sidhu’s own popularity increased four-fold between January and October 2018.

However, after the Lok Sabha polls, matters became difficult for Sidhu in Punjab. Captain, who hadn’t let Sidhu campaign much in Punjab, began actively sidelining him. With Rahul Gandhi taking a backseat, Sidhu got little support from the Congress’ central leadership. He resigned from the Punjab Cabinet a few months ago and grew silent.

But the Kartarpur Sahib Corridor has given Sidhu a chance to stage a revival.

In the past few weeks, he has slowly escalated his confrontation with the Centre as well as with Captain Amarinder Singh.

He sought permission to attend the inauguration function on the Pakistan side, but both the Centre and state dragged their feet on the matter, giving Sidhu a chance to gain mileage.

Many say that Sidhu may make his move in Punjab politics soon after the Kartarpur Sahib Corridor has been inaugurated.

Sidhu is not a Panthic politician. In fact, he is known to follow many Hindu practices and is a known devotee of Mata Vaishno Devi. But the Kartarpur Sahib Corridor has made him an unlikely hero for many religious Sikhs.

Pakistan PM Imran Khan

A curious player in this entire issue has been Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan. There is a great deal of debate around his motives. Captain Amarinder Singh, a section of the Central government and many national security analysts allege that the Kartarpur Sahib Corridor is a dangerous ploy by Khan to revive the Khalistan movement.

But he has also received a great deal of praise from many Indian Sikhs for not just making the corridor a reality but also for the infrastructure his government has built around the Gurdwara in a short period of time.

For Khan, this is beneficial in several ways. Internationally, it helps him project an image that his regime stands for peace in South Asia and is sensitive to the needs of religious minorities in Pakistan.

Within Pakistan, many people hold Guru Nanak in high esteem and would naturally be happy at this development.

More crucially, it helps him in his efforts vis-a-vis India. Besides the obvious part of winning the goodwill of Sikhs, it has enabled him to put Modi in a confusing position of pushing through a Pakistan-initiated project even in the middle of a diplomatic confrontation over the Kashmir issue.

Who Should Get Credit?

Even an informal survey of Sikhs in Punjab would tell you that among the politicians, it is Sidhu who is getting the maximum praise for making Kartarpur Sahib Corridor reality and Imran Khan’s efforts are also being appreciated. PM Modi too is receiving praise for not letting Indo-Pak tensions hamper the project.

However, Captain’s image appears to have taken a hit among Sikhs.

But truly, the credit doesn’t lie with leaders, all of whom might be operating based on their calculations.

The praise should all go to activists like Bhabhishan Singh Goraya, president of Sangat Langah, Kartarpur and Gurinder Singh Bajwa of the Kartarpur Sahib Darshan Abhilakhi Sanstha among others.

They have selflessly been petitioning both the Indian and the Pakistani governments for decades, hoping that Sikh pilgrims in India get a chance to have a hassle-free darshan of the Gurdwara.

The success also belongs to humble Sikh masses who have been praying for this moment for years.

Above all, it was the inclusive philosophy of Guru Nanak that made two squabbling South Asian nations come together and make this happen.

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