DERA BABA NANAK: Just 100 metres from the India-Pakistan border at Dera Baba Nanak in Gurdaspur district of Punjab, people are in a frenzy these days as work on the Kartarpur Corridor progresses on either side of the barbed wire fence.
The pace of work has picked up in the last one month and there is excitement—even euphoria—among people who have come for a glimpse of the shrine across the border, which would soon be accessible. Not for them the issues of war, or even talk of nationalism, during this poll season. Strained relations with Pakistan do not matter here.
In fact, people living in villages along the India-Pakistan border say that they have been living here for decades, and some of them even have relatives across the border, and talk of war and strains between the two countries will get no traction.
Dera Baba Nanak town, seven kilometres as the crow flies from Kartarpur in Pakistan, has several gurdwaras linked to the revered founder of Sikhism, Guru Nanak Dev.
According to locals, construction work on the Pakistani side started early this year, while on the Indian side work started in late March.
The land has already been acquired from four villages for the construction of the corridor, slated to open by the end of 2019 to mark the 550th birth anniversary of the Guru.
“They acquired two acres of my agricultural land at rates way below the market. But many like me accepted it, happy as we are to be a part of it and ensure safe movement of pilgrims from both sides to visit the historic places associated with Babaji,” said Gurwinder Singh, 30, a farmer, as he showed the area demarcated for the corridor in his field.
Post the BJP’s announcement of the candidature of Bollywood star Sunny Deol for the Gurdaspur seat, nationalistic fervour over the Balakot airstrike was visible briefly. However, it paled in comparison to the euphoria that engulfed the people over Kartarpur—so much so that it caught the attention of Sikhs across the world, with several NRIs flying down to see the work for themselves.
“I have been living in America for almost two decades, but I come back every year as my family members are here. I remember my school days when we could see Kartarpur Sahib from our school’s terrace. NRIs across the world see this project as a symbol of improving relations between India and Pakistan. Once complete, it will be a new chapter in our relationship and a lot of NRI Sikhs are ready to donate money for the development work. I don’t think it is good to link politics and seek votes on the momentarily strained relationship between the two countries. That spoils all such efforts to bridge the gap,” said Santokh Singh, a businessman from the US who hails from village Chanda Nangal, one of the last villages before the border.
Two kilometres out of Dera Baba Nanak towards the border, hundreds of trees—some of them decades old—lie uprooted for the construction of a road. Heavy machinery is already levelling the ground for construction of the Integrated Check Post and the pillars of the proposed elevated road under the hawk-eyed gaze of Border Security Force (BSF) personnel.
The National Highways Authority of India is looking after the construction work.
As one stands less than 100 metres away from the India-Pakistan border and looks to the other side, what catches attention is that Pakistan has already levelled a big patch of land carved out of fields, on which the elevated platform for the corridor is more or less complete. Horse-mounted Pakistani Rangers guard their side of the border.
On the Indian side, near the BSF post, there is a small gurdwara, whose well—according to the signage—was used by Guru Nanak Dev to drink water, commuting from his Kartarpur abode. The well is covered with a mesh now.
The caretaker said that the turnout of people here had increased since work on the corridor started.
“People are really happy that the passage would open doors to Darbar Sahib Gurdwara, where Guru Nanak ji spent his last days”, he said.
"So happy. They hope the opening of the corridor will also ensure the development of the region. Progress in this area was stymied due to the sourness that has recently crept into India-Pakistan relations. Some of our relatives are still in Pakistan and we consider people on the other side as our brothers,” said Sulkhan Singh from Pakkha ke Talli village on the border, as he rode a bicycle with two large containers of milk on a mud road freshly levelled for the corridor.
Unlike elsewhere in India, there is also a lot of praise and respect for Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan here as people feel that it is due to his efforts that the project is being realised.
“Pakistan took the initiative to open the corridor and our government was then obliged to reciprocate. This is something beyond politics. After its completion, thousands of Indians, not just Sikhs, would travel to see where our Guru Nanak ji finally settled and was laid to rest,” said Beant Singh, 75.
He then ended the conversation, folded his hands and bowed towards the gurdwara across the border as the setting sun silhouetted the white structure shimmering against the darkening backdrop across the barbed wire fence.