The Corridor From Dera Baba Nanak to Kartarpur Sahab
Nostalgia and reality
My remote village of Dera Baba Nanak or DBN on the Pakistani border in Punjab is astonishingly in the news, but this time for positive reasons.
Normally, as tensions rise with Pakistan DBN comes alive to the roar of tanks and the rattle of field guns as they camouflage themselves in scattered mango groves, their barrels aimed across the now near-dry Ravi river meandering between the two countries.
But after Punjab Cultural Minister Navjot Sidhu’s recent, albeit contentious visit to Pakistan, the proposal to open the corridor from DBN to the Kartarpur Sahib gurdwara some 4 km distant, founded in memory of Sikhism’s founder Nanak Bedi has once again been resurrected.
Sidhu claims that Pakistan Army chief General Qamar Bajwa informed him that Islamabad was considering India’s long-standing proposal to open this passage to Kartarpur, a message that was sealed in robust Punjabi fashion with a jhappi.
Some eight years ago Syed Asif Hashmi, then head of Pakistan’s Evacuee Trust Property Board, responsible for maintaining shrines of minority communities in his country, had similarly indicated his willingness to create a special passageway for pilgrims up to the Kartarpur Gurdwara.
This Gurdwara is of special import to Sikhs, Hindus and even Muslims. Dera itself abounds with many tales of its special status going back to 22 September 1539 when Nanak died at the age of 70.
Immediately, both Hindus and Muslims disagreed on how to perform his last rites. Hindus wanted to cremate his mortal remains and Muslims to bury them
Eventually a compromise was reached and a Hindu Samadhi and a Muslim grave were erected at Kartarpur Sahib to peaceably propitiate both communities.
Sadly, nothing came of the earlier corridor proposal much to the disappointment of Dera’s residents who flock to the relatively newly constructed viewing gallery built by the Border Security Force to look into Pakistan and Kartarpur Sahib.
As a young boy I recall standing on this bundh, a few feet from No Man’s Land along the Pakistan border fascinated by the sight of a train, its steam engine lazily puffing its passage to and from the frontier.
But all that seems more than a lifetime ago when boys from Dera’s Dane High School, my father recalled, would venture across the border in the late 1940’s to play hockey and return home before nightfall.
Dera, meaning encampment, is where my ancestor Nanak spent the last 17 years of his life farming a small plot of land.
A distant relative is the custodian of his white homespun cloak and wooden slippers, which are displayed each year at a special fair in the village in March attended by tens of thousands of devotees.
Before Partition even Muslims flocked to visit the holy man's effects as all communities revered him, but all that worship has long ended.
Normally DBN makes the news when it becomes the scene of heavy army deployment, most recently in 2001 following the terrorist attack on parliament when both the Indian and Pakistani armies mobilised for battle.
Militarily, DBN is the gateway to Sialkot, barely 25 km distant as the crow flies and my parents recall that just for one day at independence Dera ended up inside newly created Pakistan as confusion prevailed over boundary lines.
Conflict and war are not new to Dera's residents, the majority of them farmers.
Many remember the 1965 and 1971 wars with Pakistan when all the women and children were dispatched to nearby towns for safety and the men folk stayed behind to tend to their fields and to look after the jawans, lavishing Punjabi hospitality on them.
Artillery and tank duels raged around Dera for control of the vital bridge over the Ravi, badly damaged in 1965 and never repaired since.
The artillery fire in 1971 was equally fierce as some of the field guns secreted in our small family mango grove with the century-old open well with its crystal clear water, relentlessly bombarded the enemy.
At the time we all remain convinced that the wise and spiritually benign Nanak hovered protectively above ensuring that no harm came to his beloved village. It did not.
"Guru Nanak's blessing will always ensure that nothing happens to us" Raghbir Singh Bedi, a retired school headmaster confidentially says. He will do the same for us again if there is a fight, he confidentially added.
The last time I visited Dera some years ago, the cacophonic drone of loudspeakers, relaying the Gurbani from the gold-domed gurdwara on the edge of the bazaar, barely managed to edge out the continuing din of popular Punjabi songs being played by the local eunuchs to celebrate the birth of a child in Sunaiara or Jewelers Alley.
This is the area where my grandfather, a sessions judge in what is now Pakistan, once came across a pot full of gold coins and jewelry whilst digging the foundations of our family house, now a complete ruin over a century-and-a-half later.
He was allowed by the Colonial administration to keep one gold sovereign from the entire cache, enchased during the chaotic days of Partition.
Over the years we heard fascinatingly romantic stories of many others similarly finding treasure buried in walls that crumbled during the monsoon rains, a phenomenon the village elders attributed to divine intervention and association with Nanak.
Decades later, however, a more prosaic and plausible explanation emerged: the booty was what refugees fleeing their homes Pakistan in 1947 buried on brief stopovers at the frontier village, hoping to collect it later, but never ever did.
Back at the viewing gallery on the border looking across at Kartarpur Sahib, lush green fields of ripening wheat and paddy dominate both sides of the border, belying the heightened tension between the two sides.
Ordinarily, this bucolic landscape would be idyllic.
But, unfortunately it hides within it an inherent nastiness and enmity, capable of erupting into discord anytime.
Hopefully with the proposed corridor to Kartarpur Sahib, if it ever materialises this dissonance will somewhat mitigate in Nanak’s memory, propagating the seer’s rather simple message of eclecticism and brotherhood.