“Opening Kartarpur Corridor good sign, but give peace too a chance”, says Punjab CM Amarinder

The ongoing row over Kartarpur corridor seems amusing given the fact that it was triggered by Pakistan after its Imran Khan-led government took the first decisive step in making the corridor a reality and the world came to know about it through Navjot Sidhu, writes RAJU WILLIAM

The credit war erupted in the wake of Pakistan Army chief General Qmar Javed Bajwa informally breaking the news of opening of the Sikh shrine Kartarpur Sahib in his country for the Sikh pilgrims on the occasion of 550th birth anniversary of Guru Nanak Dev, the first Guru of the Sikhs, has caused uncalled for controversy among Punjab’s ruling and opposition parties whose leaders have since been indulging in scoring political points.

Rather inglorious spectacle of this political oneupmanship was witnessed at the foundation stone laying function of the corridor on November 26 at Dera Baba Nanak in Gurdaspur district in the presence of the Vice-President Venkaiah Naidu. The bone of contention was the names of former Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal, his son and former Deputy Chief Minister Sukhbir Singh Badal on the foundation stone.

The Congress Minister Sukhjinder Singh Randhwa even went up the dias amidst the speech being delivered by Akali leader and Union Minister Harsimrat Kaur Badal to register his protest for the reason that she was making political references demeaning his party. “It was wrong on her part to rake up the 1984 issue on the historic religious occasion. The Akalis are in the habit of exploiting religion for political gains,” commented Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh.

At the centre of the entire controversy is cricketer-turned politician and TV celebrity Punjab Congress Minister Navjot Singh Sidhu who landed in Pakistan for the second time- the first one was in August this year- to attend the ground breaking ceremony of the corridor to be constructed on the Pakistani side. Sidhu is known for courting controversies, be it politics or the cricket.

In August, Sidhu had stirred a storm back home when he attended the swearing-in of another cricketer-turned politician Imran Khan as the Prime Minister of Pakistan. The reason was his hug to the Pakistan Army chief  Bajwa after being told by the latter that his country was considering opening of  the pilgrimage passage to the place where Guru Nanak had spent last about 18 years of his life. The Sikhs across the world had for long been demanding access to the sacred Gurdwara Darbar Sahib constructed there. The fulfillment of this long cherished demand sent waves of joy across the Sikh community globally.

In the backdrop of prevailing atmosphere of animosity between both countries, his hug was not taken kindly in his home country. He was bitterly criticized for this ‘unpatriotic’ act in the Indian media especially the sections considered close to the ruling BJP at the Centre. Yet Sidhu remained unfazed and justified his act terming it as a sincere gesture which any devout Sikh would make on suddenly coming to know about the possibility of visiting and paying obeisance at the shrine which had been beyond the community’s access since the Partition.

The brunt of criticism Sidhu faced emanated from his home state Punjab where the ruling Congress party’s traditional political adversary SAD which is an alliance partner of the ruling BJP at the Centre could not come to terms with the political blow to its image of being champion of the Sikhs’ religio-political interests. The opening of corridor meant continuation of political downslide for the SAD since it lost power to the Congress led by Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh in 2017 provincial elections after a decade long rule. With 2019 general elections in the country being 8 months away, the BJP whose electoral agenda significantly thrives on anti-Pakistan sentiment, too was put in a politically awkward situation as it was constrained to reciprocate to the Pakistan’s announcement of opening the corridor. Its failure to do so would have meant losing faith of the Sikh community in the country and abroad. It was for this reason that the Modi Cabinet decided to lay foundation stone of the corridor on the Indian side on November 26, two days ahead of the already announced ground breaking ceremony of the corridor by Pakistan on its side at Kartarpur Sahib.  

The ongoing credit war in Punjab and India looks amusing given the fact that it was triggered by Pakistan after Imran Khan led federal government took the first decisive step in making the corridor a reality and the world came to know about it through Sidhu. His role is only this much. He had, for all purposes and intents, gone to attend swearing-in of Imran Khan on being personally invited as a friend. From all available accounts it is clear that credit and condemnation was thrust on him thanks to his friends and foes in the media. The lavish praise heaped on him by Punjabi media fraternity based in foreign countries too looked largely misplaced. The credit bestowed on him by common Sikhs is understandable as they are

That Sidhu is not the rightful claimant of the credit- a fact he himself chose to disassociate from though long after savouring it- should be clear if the efforts of the individuals and groups among the Sikh community are taken into account. So much so, the Punjab legislative assembly had passed a unanimous resolution on October 1, 2010 seeking opening of the corridor. For several years, opening of the corridor had become an integral part of the every Sikh’s daily prayers. It was on the insistence of the community leaders that binoculars were installed near Dera Baba Nanak inside the Indo-Pak border in Gurdaspur district to enable the devotees to have a glimpse of Kartarpur Sahib located 4.5 Kilometres away in Pakistan.

The US-based founder of the United Sikh Mission, Rashpal Singh Dhindsa said that his NGO made several representations on the issue since 2004 when he led a jatha of pilgrims from the US to the Sikh shrines in Pakistan. “We prepared a proposal in which the said corridor was named as Kartarpur Sahin Marg. One of our members Surinder Singh even conducted a survey and a booklet containing all details of the proposed shape and budget of 17.2 million US Dollars was published by us. We also put up the community’s demand in writing before the then Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh and UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi besides meeting Rahul Gandhi, concerned Congress ministers and Captain Amarinder Singh,” he said.

Among others, the efforts of the late Akali leader Kuldip Singh Wadala are also prominently acknowledged among the community. “The issue of the corridor was raised by Dr Manmohan Singh on the 400th anniversary of Sri Guru Granth Sahib and he himself had raised it with Pakistani leaders Parvez Musharraf and Parvez Elahi,” said Captain Amarinder Singh.

The Akali-BJP attempts to outdo Congress and Sidhu in particular is understandable for the political considerations, the verbose Congress Minister, enjoying support of the Congress president Rahul Gandhi, has earned the disapproval of Captain Amarinder Singh for his statements and actions. He publicly stated that Sidhu “has his way of thinking”. Though Sidhu has been saying that his visits to Pakistan were made in personal capacity as a friend of Imran Khan and that he was guided by his religious belief and faith on the issue of corridor, the insiders in the party and the government say he was being toeing own political agenda since he joined the Congress just ahead of last Assembly elections. He has not been seen on the same page with the Chief Minister and several colleagues within the party and government on many issues. “These differences resurfaced as Sidhu’s way of hogging limelight on the corridor issue bypassing the Chief Minister is not justified,” said a senior Punjab Minister asking not to be named.

For the common Sikhs, the credit war is unfortunate as they view the issue in a balanced manner and from the faith angle. Largely they view it as Guru’s answer to their prayers. “Navjot Sidhu deserves the credit for making the right sound effects in public in favour of the corridor’s opening. The credit also goes to the BJP leadership even though it has not claimed it. At the same time, it must have been difficult for the hyper jingoistic BJP Government at the Centre to extend hand of friendship to Pakistan on the issue when crucial four state assembly elections are in progress,” commented Ludhiana-based industrialist Ashok Singh Garcha. Dhindsa summed up saying that since the issue has been clinched by governments of both countries, so the credit goes to all including all those who believe in Guru Nanak Dev.

You declined invite by Pakistan Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi to attend ground breaking ceremony there for the reason his country sponsors terror activities in India besides unprovoked killing of our soldiers. Do you think decision to open Kartarpur Corridor has been taken alone by political establishment there?

I cannot say whether the political establishment there took this decision on its own or discussed matters with the Army. If the prime minister took this decision on his own initiative, for whatever political compulsions he might have thought he had, then I can only say it is a good sign and he should now take this independence forward by reining in the Pakistan Army. Frankly, nobody knows how things work in that country and to what extent the government there is controlled by the Army. But one thing we do know is that the Pakistan Army is behind a lot of the trouble we are witnessing in India. The Corridor of peace cannot become a reality in the true sense and spirit till the Pakistani Army stops unleashing violence against our soldiers and puts an end to backing anti-India terror groups. That is an imperative for peaceful and friendly relations between our two nations, which have common roots and share a common cultural & social ethos. Having said that, I would once again like to make it clear that I will not allow Pakistan army or anyone else to destroy our hard-earned peace or let Punjab once again plunge into the dark days of terror. I owe this to my state and my people.

What’s your take on credit war going on here on this issue

A religious issue of such extreme importance has no place for politics and it is unfortunate that the Akalis have been trying to usurp credit for the Kartarpur Corridor to further their political gains. The Corridor has been a cherished long-pending desire of every Sikh. Even I have always wanted to visit the last abode of our Great Guru and will hopefully see my wish getting fulfilled in my lifetime. But the fact remains that it is the Congress which has been striving to realise this dream of the Sikh community over the years. It was Late Prime Minister Indira Gandhi who had first promised Punjab access to Kartarpur, and that was 49 years ago, on the historic 500th birth anniversary of Sri Guru Nanak Dev ji. Then in 2004, then Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh had raised the issue of the Corridor on the 400th anniversary of Sri Guru Granth Sahib. I had raised the issue with Pakistani leaders Parvez Musharraf and Parvez Elahi during my previous tenure and had been persistently pursuing the matter with the current regime in India, led by Narendra Modi ji. And I am happy the prime minister has acceded to our request to open the corridor on the immensely auspicious occasion of the 550th Prakash Purb of the first Guru.

You have said your minister Navjot Sidhu has his own way of thinking. Did you ever ask him as to why he is behaving like this especially because he must be seen with his party’s govt? He is even shooting letters on the issue to Indian Foreign Minister even as you as the CM have already been communicating with the Centre.

Look, any individual can write any number of letters to the prime minister or any member of his cabinet. What Navjot Sidhu has been doing has been in his personal capacity, just as his decision to visit Pakistan earlier for the ceremony to instal Imran Khan as their prime minister, and now for their groundbreaking ceremony of the Kartarpur Corridor. I will never interfere in his personal decisions, though I did feel that as a member of the Punjab cabinet and also of the Congress, he should have agreed to my request to reconsider his decision to go to Pakistan when I, as the chief minister, had taken a strong stand on the issue of the continued killings of our people and soldiers. As to why he is behaving like that is not something I can answer on his account. I clearly spelt out my reasons for taking the stand I did, it’s up to him to explain his stand on the issue.