As India’s northern Punjab province is electing assembly on Sunday, Kartarpur – one of Sikhism’s holiest shrines situated a few miles away across borders in Pakistan – finds an echo in election campaigning.

The Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which rules the country, is taking credit for opening the borders at Kartarpur to allow Sikh pilgrims to visit the shrine across borders in the Narowal district of Pakistan.

According to an agreement enacted with Pakistan in 2019, pilgrims can cross the border and visit the shrine without a visa.

Located some 115 kilometers (71 miles) from Pakistan’s main city Lahore, the shrine known as Kartarpur Sahib Gurudwara is one of the most revered places for the Sikh community as it hosted Baba Guru Nanak, the founder of the Sikh religion, for 18 years.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, during an election rally this week in Punjab, blamed the main opposition Congress party for failing to keep the Kartarpur temple within India’s territory at the time of independence and creation of Pakistan in 1947.

“The opportunity to include Kartarpur Sahib in India’s territory was missed again during the 1965 and 1971 wars with Pakistan,” he said.
In another rally, Jagat Prakash Nadda, president of the BJP, while highlighting the initiatives taken for the benefit of Sikhs, said it was a demand since independence that people should be allowed to visit the shrine. He credited Prime Minister Narendra Modi for making the opening possible.

“It was because of Prime Minister Modi … he spoke to Pakistan and made it possible,” said Nadda, adding that 1.2 billion Indian rupees ($15.9 million) were spent on the construction of corridor from the Indian side.

The distance between Kartarpur and the town of Gurdaspur in India is just 3km (2 miles). The pilgrims had to first visit New Delhi to procure visas from Pakistani missions and then take a circuitous route by traveling hundreds of kilometers to cross the border at Wagah, near Amritsar, and then travel to Lahore to reach Kartarpur.

Others feel it is a non-issue

Even as the ruling party is reminding people about the Kartarpur corridor, other political parties say it was a non-issue in elections.

Speaking to Anadolu Agency, Manpreet Singh, 66, contesting from Dera Baba Nanak seat in Gurdaspur district, from Samyukt Samaj Morcha, a new political party formed by a section of farmers, said it was not an election issue. He complained that real problems faced by the people in the border district are not being discussed.

“The farmers whose land is located between the barbed wire fence and zero-line at the India-Pakistan border are not currently receiving the compensation. There are many other problems which people are facing in every area. We want to resolve those issues,” said Singh.

In the main town of Gurdaspur, there is a sense of anger among the people against unemployment, lack of quality education, ill health infrastructure, and the biggest problem of drugs.

“We are very close to Pakistan and drug smuggling is a big issue. We want a government which will end this problem because the youth is falling prey to drugs,” said Jaspreet Singh, a resident of Gurdaspur.

Sukhjinder Singh Randhawa, who is a Congress leader and deputy chief minister of the province, is facing a tough battle from the Dera Baba Nanak Assembly segment in the multi-cornered contest involving the candidate of Shiromani Akali Dal (a Sikh-centric political party) and Aam Aadmi Party.

Education, good roads are issues

Singh said that because of the bad condition of the government schools, the parents have to send their children to private institutions.

“What is happening now is that people know they have to send their children outside the country for jobs. So, almost all the parents are providing for their children in private schools so that they can qualify for English language testing,” said Singh.

Karamvir Singh said they are looking forward to a government that would make schools and health facilities on the same pattern in the national capital New Delhi.

“The Aam Aadmi Party has worked well in Delhi in the education and health sector. People feel they deserve a chance this time and I am thinking of voting for the party this time,” he said.

Amarjit Singh, an expert in Guru Nanak Studies in Punjab, told Anadolu Agency that it was unlikely that the BJP would get votes for opening the Kartarpur corridor with Pakistan.

“Kartarpur Sahib is very much connected to people in Punjab and worldwide. I don’t think raising this issue in the election is going to help any party,” he said, adding that it is not an issue in the present elections.

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