Harbans Lal, Ph.D.; D.Litt. (Hons)
In the past few days, Punjab minister Navjot Singh Sidhu brought good news. He announced that the Pakistan Army Chief Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa had told him that Islamabad would open a corridor to connect Gurdwara Darbar Sahib at Kartarpur in Pakistan’s Narowal district with Gurdwara Dera Sahib on the Eastern side of the river Ravi. This was a gesture on the 550th birth anniversary of Guru Nanak in the Year 2019.
General Bajwa’s announcement expressed the honest and far-sighted view of the newly elected Pakistan Prime Minister, Imran Khan – who confirmed the promise soon after by a direct statement from the Prime Minister’s office.
Navjot was not alone, the Chief Minister of Punjab Sardar Amarinder Singh was right behind the long-awaited gestor between the two countries. They have already submitted a letter of proposal to the Government of India on their corridor plan.
India and Pakistan have been at each other’s throat for the past seven decades. The wounds of partition were not tending to heal. Instead, they were waiting for the skies to open to shower any healing balm from the above. The 550th year of Guru Nanak’s advent may well be such a juncture.
Guru Nanak was born at Talwandi that was later named after him as Nanakana. It is only 170 km from the West banks of the river Ravi, where Guru Nanak established the town of Kartarpur and spent last 18 years of his life. There, he founded a worldwide movement which is now known as Sikhi-sm. That, in turn, made Kartarpur Gurdwara as the Sikhs’ most sacred and most historic Gurdwara, akin to Holy Medina for the Muslim world. Besides, Kartarpur is holy to not only Sikhs but to civil societies at large because of the universal peace message that its unique history imparts for all civil societies.
Kartarpur is situated on the Western banks of river Ravi. Across from Kartarpur on the Eastern banks of Ravi is the town of Dera Baba Nanak, where Guru Nanak visited often. His in-laws lived there, and Guru Nanak’s family was taken care in the same city during his long journeys.
For centuries during and after the days of Guru Nanak, devotees routinely traveled both ways on the bridge across Ravi to pay obeisance to Gurdwaras in Kartarpur and Dera Baba Nanak. They visited there for daily prayers and inspirations as well as to touch the dust of the land where Guru Nanak ingrained his footsteps.
The road and railroad bridge connecting the two holy shrines was constructed by the British Govt, around 1927 AD. (Figure 1Painting of Kartarpur Bridge).
However, the war between Pakistan and India broke out, and this sacred bridge became a casualty; the air-force bombed it for defense reasons. Although the war was only short-lived, the loss of the bridge was forever to the agony of all lovers of Guru Nanak; the offending government never rebuilt the fatally damaged bridge. Soon after the war, Sri Nanakana Sahib Foundation under the leadership of Sardar Ganga Singh made as its agenda to restore the corridor bridge.
At the Annual meeting of the Nanakana Foundation at its 25th Anniversary in Lahore, we resolved to ask for the reconstruction of the bridge and constituted a delegation under the leadership of Sardar Ganga Singh to meet with the President of Pakistan and other Pakistani authorities. It was so done. The Sikh delegation met with the President of Pakistan and other Pakistani authorities to move forward our proposal. Similarly, we held a National conference of the Pakistani Muslim Ulemas (Islamic religious scholars) in Lahore to establish the Muslim-Sikh Itehad (unity) organization in order to promote the issue further.
The international representatives who took active part in the deliberations in Lahore meetings included, Col. Chaudhary Hamid Ali, President Nanakana Foundation, Sardar Ganga Singh Dhillon, Dr. Bhai Harbans Lal, Sardar Joginder Singh advocate, Sardar Hukam Singh, Sardar Harbhajan Singh, Sardar Kesar Singh Dhaliwal, Sardar and Sardarni Bawa Ujagar Singh, Bibi Kanwaljit Kaur, Sardar Balwant Singh Goraya, Sardar Kesar Singh, Sardar Kartar Singh Bal, Sardar Bhupinder Singh, Sardar Satnam Singh Bhugra, Sardar Gyan Singh, Sardar Harpal Singh Bhullar, Sardar Perminder Singh Soch and others (my apology for the names that I have forgotten since the Lahore conference, and group photos including every one that I do not have in my records-HL).
Among other issues of the free excess to the Sikh shrines in Pakistan, we asked that a corridor bridge is built and designated as the Baba Nanak International Peace Bridge. We explored various avenues for the construction and financing the International Peace Bridge on Ravi to connect the two Sikh historical sight. At this time, the Pakistan Govt had already announced the formation of the Pakistan Sikh Gurdwara Parbandhak (management) Committee. The Govt. thus was friendly towards our proposals.
It is at about the same time; the then Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee visited Pakistan on the opening of the Delhi-Lahore bus service. His inner circles told us that he talked about the corridor issue with Pakistan Government. Obviously, these conversations were perhaps off the record. Perhaps because of all these pressures that, in November 2000, on the birthday of Guru Nanak, a proclamation was held in Lahore that the Government of Pakistan was ready to make collaboration on the corridor project if there was a positive response from the Government of India.
It was on that occasion that with the help of Sardar Harbhajan Singh of the World Bank office in Washington DC, our delegation also met with the World Bank authorities in Pakistan. There, in response to our proposal of the Guru Nanak International Peace Bridge, we were told that the World Blank could advance a loan of up to 15 million dollars to build the International Peace Bridge. The caviar was that both Pakistan and India had to consent and apply for the loan together. Initial inquiries told us that it would not be possible to have Govt. of India to support the bridge on account of security concerns.
There was no follow up of the proposals and announcements of those years on the governmental level to my knowledge. Despite all demands, due to a non-mutual agreement between the two sides, the joint corridor has not been undertaken. Although, it is often claimed that both the governments of the two sides are showing strenuous efforts to initiate a peace process. Since the diplomatic view of both sides is not clear, the plan for this project is not succeeding.
In 2001, an old colleague of the All India Sikh Students’ Federation, Jathedar Kuldeep Singh Wadala founded ‘Kartarpur Sahib-Ravi Darshan Abhalashashi Sanstha’ in order to raise the public consciousness in both Punjabs. He spoke at numerous public meetings and widely distributed literature supporting this issue. After this, nearly half-a-dozen organizations sprang up into action to realize this goal of building the corridor.
Waiting for three-quarters of a century to travel around two miles, the news from our current Sikh Punjab ministers, Navjodh Singh and Amrinder Singh, is very welcome news. Nearly 300 million admirers of Guru Nanak all over the world are very jubilant; they will be more so when they walk over the peace bridge in the name of Guru Nanak.
Presently Sikhs in India visit the Indian side of the river Ravi to have a glimpse of the Gurdwara Kartarpur located on the Pakistani side of the river. They use binoculars provided by the security forces. This is all because of the wrangles in obtaining visas. The Baba Nanak International Bridge will be not only a welcome gesture for the Sikhs all over the world, but it will enhance the psyche of the peace process in the subcontinent.
Let us pray that Pakistani Naval Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa and Punjab Cabinet Minister Navjot Singh Sidhu succeed in the efforts they jointly initiated. When the bridge is complete, its name as The Baba Nanak International Peace Bridge will be very appropriate. Sri Nanakana Sahib Foundation conceived this name in 2000 to pay homage to the Guru Nanak’s efforts across the continents to unite the warring communities in South East Asia and the Islamic countries.
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Harbans Lal, Ph.D.; D.Litt (Hons)
Professor Emeritus & Chairman, Dept of Pharmacology & Neurosciences, University of North Texas Health Science Center.
Professor Emeritus, Guru Nanak Dev University, Amritsar, India.
President, Academy of Guru Granth Studies.