The issue of granting access to Sikh devotees to travel without a visa to the historic Kartarpur Sahib Gurdwara, situated less than four kilometres inside the Pakistani territory, near the Dera Baba Nanak area of Gurdaspur district, has become central to Punjab politics. Although in August the state Assembly had unanimously adopted a resolution moved by Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh, demanding a passage to the holy shrine just ahead of Guru Nanak’s 550th birth anniversary celebrations, earlier in the week the Sikh Gurdwara Prabandak Committee (SGPC) submitted a memorandum to the visiting United Nations Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, seeking his intervention in resolving the matter with Pakistan.
This was done with the full knowledge that the United Nations has no power to influence two sovereign nations on the subject and particularly since the request of the Punjab Assembly was pending with the Central government, which alone can decide on whether to take up the case with Pakistan. Kartarpur Sahib is close to the heart of all Sikhs as it was here, that Guru Nanak spent his final years, and the Gurdwara is built at the sacred site where the Sikh Saint breathed his last.
Another significant aspect related to the place is that it was here that Guru Nanak appointed Lehna as his spiritual successor, overlooking his own family, since he felt that he was the only one who could carry forth his missionary quest. Lehna was bestowed with the name Angad so as to symbolise that he was a part of Guru Nanak’s body and soul, and thus later assumed the charge of the second Sikh Guru, popularly known as Guru Angad Dev. For most devotees the place is considered as the first headquarters of the Sikh faith, and therefore it is a binding desire of the Sangat to undertake a pilgrimage to the venerated precincts.
The Central government has so far not made any categorical commitment to the Sikh delegations—that have been calling on the External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj—on when it would be in a position to discuss the matter with its counterparts in Pakistan. Punjab Minister, Navjot Singh Sidhu, who had visited Pakistan for the swearing in ceremony of fellow cricketer, Imran Khan, has apparently claimed that the Pakistan government was prepared to grant access to the Sikhs to visit the shrine. He has gone on record stating that this was the principal reason for prompting him to hug the Pakistan army chief, General Qamar Javed Bajwa who had informed him regarding his country’s ready willingness to allow Sikhs to pay obeisance at the Gurdwara.
Realising that the issue was being virtually hijacked by Sidhu, Union Minister Harsimrat Kaur Badal lashed out at him, claiming that he had derailed the process for permission which had been initiated by her husband, and former Deputy Chief Minister, Sukhbir Singh Badal, during his meeting late last year with the Pakistan High Commissioner. She stated that Sidhu was needlessly trying to claim credit for the initiative, though Sushma Swaraj had clearly not granted him an appointment to discuss the subject. The facts are to the contrary, since the Punjab minister had gone to meet Swaraj, accompanied by former Chief Election Commissioner M.S. Gill, who has been pursuing the matter for a number of years.
Senior Sikh leaders from the capital, led by Paramjit Singh Sarna, former president of the Delhi Sikh Gurdwara Prabandak Committee also called on the Pakistan High Commissioner on Thursday, to ascertain Islamabad’s view on the subject. Sarna claimed that Pakistanis were prepared to ferry Sikhs, without a visa, in air-conditioned coaches from the Indian border till the shrine. Sarna had also sought time from Prime Minister Narendra Modi to seek his assistance, but was informed by the PMO that he should instead engage with BJP president Amit Shah. The SGPC chief, Gobind Singh Longowal, and a Sikh body, Akal Puruku Ki Fauj, have also sought an early resolution of this topic.
Political analysts, keeping a close watch on the affairs of the state, believe that any person who would manage to get the gateway opened to Kartarpur Sahib Gurdwara would decisively possess a political edge over his opponents. It is widely felt that if Captain Amarinder Singh, who is at the helm of affairs in the state, is able to do so, he would ensure not only a resounding victory for his party in the Lok Sabha elections but would as well pave the way for his own second term. In this context, it is frequently mentioned how in the early 1970s, Giani Zail Singh had outwitted the Akalis at their own game of using both religion and its symbols for the furtherance of political purposes. Incidentally, after the reorganisation of the state in 1966, Giani Zail Singh has been the only non-Jat Sikh Chief Minister of Punjab.
History records that Guru Nanak had made Kartarpur Sahib his base after 100 acres of land was donated to him by Governor Duni Chand, post his meeting with the saint at Pakhote. The Guru then constructed a thatched house along the banks of the river Ravi. References suggest that on 13 Magh, 1572 Bikram Samwat (1515 AD), Guru Nanak formally laid the foundation of Kartarpur.
If the matter is amicably settled with Pakistan, it is an issue that could reap tremendous goodwill in the region for both the Centre and the state governments. However, there is immense political play ingrained in the situation as well. Between us.