DERA BABA NANAK: Over 70 years after they became separate countries and have largely witnessed at best strained to downright hostile ties, India and Pakistan have been brought on common ground by a religious monument of faith - the Kartarpur Sahib gurdwara.
If the activity, as seen from this border town in north Punjab's Gurdaspur district, on both sides of the international border (IB) between the two countries is any indication, Sikh and Hindu pilgrims from secular India will be headed to Islamic Pakistan through a specially created corridor that will facilitate their visa-free travel to the Kartarpur Sahib gurdwara to offer prayers at the shrine that holds a lot of religious significance on both sides.
As one stands at the Viewers' Gallery at the border out post (BoP) manned by India's Border Security Force (BSF) troopers, the hectic activity to build the Kartarpur Corridor inside Pakistan can be partially scene beyond the "dhussi" (earthen embankment) with heavy machinery and men tasked to complete the task at hand.
The deadline, for both countries, to ensure that the corridor project is completed, is before November this year, when the 550th birth anniversary celebrations of Sikhism founder, Guru Nanak Dev (1469-1539) is going to be observed in both countries.
What makes the Kartarpur Sahib gurdwara, which is located around 4.5-km from the IB and is in Narowal district of Pakistan, significant for the Sikh community is that Guru Nanak spent the last 18 years of his life there and was it is his final resting place.
"It has been the cherished desire of every Sikh on this side of the border to visit Kartarpur Sahib. The prayers have been answered after over 70 years. We are all just waiting for the moment when going there will actually become a reality for people from India," Joginder Singh, a village elder distributing aprasad' outside the Gurdwara Saheed Baba Singh Sohn at the BoP, told IANS.
Scores of people arrive at the BoP, located 2 km ahead of Dera Baba Nanak (DBN) town, daily to have 'darshan' (glimpse) of the Kartarpur Sahib gurdwara from the viewers' gallery under the watchful eye of the BSF troopers and the recently stationed Punjab Police personnel.
"This pilgrimage is important. It will be great when people will be able to actually go and offer prayers at the gurdwara in Pakistan," Manjeet Singh, a farmer from Karnal district in Haryana, over 360 km from here, told IANS.
The white-coloured gurdwara building is visible on clear days from the elevated Viewers' Gallery.
"People come here and offer prayers. On weekends and holidays, hundreds of people come here," a BSF official from its 10th battalion posted here told IANS.
On the Indian side, the National Highways Authority of India (NHAI) has put up red flags to mark the area where a highway is proposed from DBN till the IB. The Punjab government has initiated the land acquisition process for the highway and other facilities for pilgrims. The work in Punjab side is not as much as it is in the Pakistan side where the actual corridor, with a proper security fencing, is coming up.
The importance of the Kartarpur Corridor can be gauged from the fact that governments in both countries are dealing with this matter of faith with utmost sensitivity.
The project's ground-breaking ceremony in Pakistan saw the country's Prime Minister Imran Khan and Army Chief Qamar Javed Bajwa in attendance (on November 28) while the foundation stone on the India side had Vice President M. Venkaiah Naidu and Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh present (on November 26).
As per the draft shared by the Pakistan government with India, it has been proposed that 500 pilgrims will be allowed to move through the Corridor from India daily. However, Pakistan has proposed entry of only Sikh devotees which is being objected to Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh has protested against Pakistan's proposal to allow only Sikh pilgrims to visit Kartarpur Sahib gurdwara.
Pointing out that Guru Nanak Dev, who was born in a Hindu family and is revered by followers of all religions, especially Hindus, the Chief Minister has urged the Indian government to get this move rectified.
"The Sikh ethos prescribes non-discrimination, with even the concept of langar being caste-less service for all. Gurdwaras are open to all, without religious bias. A large number of Hindus in India were ardent followers of Sri Guru Nanak Dev Ji, and it was their cherished dream to visit the Kartarpur Sahib Gurdwara, which was closely associated with the first Sikh Guru," he said.
"For years, there was a tradition of Hindu families in north India converting their eldest sons to Sikhism," Rupinder Singh, a Sikh researcher, pointed out.
For both the nuclear-armed nations that have fought three wars and talk only about cross-border terrorism not trade, the leap through faith to have cross-border pilgrimage going through the Kartarpur Corridor could be a significant milestone in the rocky ties between the neighbours.