Source: The Dawn News - World
Sikhs from across the border have started arriving in Pakistan to make a historic pilgrimage to the shrine of Guru Nanak Dev, the founder of Sikhism, which is located in Kartarpur, as Islamabad and New Delhi make history by opening the Kartarpur Corridor today.
Prime Minister Imran Khan arrived at the corridor inauguration ceremony using the shuttle service being used by pilgrims, according to state broadcaster PTV.
The premier, who is accompanied by Punjab Chief Minister Usman Buzdar, Governor Chaudhry Sarwar, Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi, Minister for Religious Affairs Pir Noorul Haq Qadri and other officials, is also expected to address the gathering.
Former Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh led the first delegation of Sikh pilgrims as they crossed into Pakistan through the Kartarpur Corridor. Indian Punjab's Chief Minister Amarinder Singh was also part of the jatha (caravan).
"I hope India and Pakistan relations improve enormously as a result of this beginning," Manmohan told PTV as he walked towards the Pakistan side, terming the occasion a "big moment".
The Indian Punjab chief minister said they were all happy because it had been a desire of Sikhs to visit their religious sites in Pakistan for 70 years.
"This is a beginning, I hope it's going to continue and many more gurdwaras are going to be allowed," he remarked.
Former Indian cricketer-turned-politician Navjot Singh Sidhu has also arrived for the opening ceremony.
Foreign diplomats, accompanied by Foreign Office Spokesperson Dr Mohammad Faisal and Foreign Secretary Sohail Mahmood, will attend the ceremony.
Before seeing off the first group of pilgrims — who will be received by Prime Minister Imran Khan at the shrine — Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressed members of the Sikh community and hailed the opening of the corridor.
"I also thank Pakistan's Prime Minister Imran Khan for understanding India's wishes and turning Kartarpur into reality," Modi said in his speech. He also thanked the labour in both countries for completing the construction in such a short time.
The Indian premier said that Baba Guru Nanak was not just a revered figure for Sikhs but for the entire humanity.
About 8,000-10,000 pilgrims are expected to arrive from around the world to mark Guru Nanak's 550th birthday on November 12.
The premier had performed the groundbreaking of the visa-free corridor last year. Since then, the government has employed hundreds of labourers to spruce up the shrine, including building a border immigration checkpoint and a bridge, as well as expanding the site's grounds. After tough negotiations between Islamabad and New Delhi, Pakistan and India had finally signed an agreement regarding the project last month.
Ahead of the opening, the prime minister also announced special waivers in order to facilitate Indian pilgrims. Pilgrims who arrive from India will no longer need a passport to cross over into Pakistan as long as they have a valid identity.
The premier had also announced that he had directed that the condition for pilgrims to register 10 days before their arrival at the Kartarpur shrine be waived.
Furthermore, the pilgrims who arrive on the day of the Kartarpur Corridor's opening and on Baba Guru Nanak's 550th birth anniversary will not be charged any fee to visit.
Up to 5,000 Indian Sikhs have been allowed access daily, with plans to eventually double the capacity.
Sikhs from around the world — including some from India who entered from the main border crossing at Wagah after obtaining visas — have been arriving in Pakistan ahead of the celebrations for several days already.
Opening border and hearts
In a statement issued hours before the opening of the Kartarpur Corridor, Prime Minister Imran congratulated the Sikh community residing in Pakistan as well as in India on the occasion.
The premier said that the "unprecedented gesture of goodwill [...] is a reflection of our deep respect for Baba Guru Nanak Dev Ji and religious sentiments of Sikh community".
"Today we are not only opening border but also our hearts for the Sikh community," the statement read.
The prime minister in his statement further said: "The inauguration today is also a testimony of our commitment towards peace of the region. We believe that the road to prosperity of region and bright future of our coming generation lies in peace. We believe that interfaith harmony and peaceful coexistence will provide us an opportunity to work for larger interests of people of the sub-continent.
"While congratulating the Sikh community once again, I also wish to thank all those who contributed towards transforming this vision in reality in record time of 10 months only."
For up to 30 million Sikhs around the world, it is one of their holiest places. When Pakistan was carved out of colonial India at independence from Britain in 1947, Kartarpur ended up on the western side of the border — though most of the region's Sikhs remained on the other side.
For them, it is tantalisingly close — just four kilometres inside Pakistan, so near that Indian Sikhs have been known to stand on the other side and simply gaze across the divide at the site.
But decades of enmity between India and Pakistan, nuclear arch-rivals who have fought three wars and countless skirmishes since independence, has left extreme restrictions on their ability to visit.
“This land is sacred for them,” Habib Khan, the 63-year-old imam of a small mosque just outside the gurdwara, told AFP on Friday.
Vans of pilgrims could be seen travelling through Kartarpur on Friday.
The Indian flag could be seen flying across the border, just beyond fields dotted with eucalyptus and guava trees — though it was half obscured by the heavy smog that has blanketed large swathes of South Asia in recent days.
Contingents of Rangers dotted the rice-growing region which, being so close to the border, is heavily secured, with multiple checkpoints.
With additional reporting by Sanaullah Khan in Islamabad.