THE INAUGURATION OF the Kartarpur corridor, 72 years after the Partition of India, on November 8th, will be a landmark moment in the troubled history of South Asia. It will connect the Dera Baba Nanak shrine in Gurdaspur district (Punjab, India), on the left bank of the river Ravi, with Gurdwara Darbar Sahib in Kartarpur (Punjab, Pakistan), on the right bank.
The Kartarpur moment seeks to transcend the wounds of Partition. The Radcliffe Line, demarcating the territorial and political border between India and Pakistan, surgically cut Punjab in two. The sundering of Punjab continued in subsequent decades. Partition didn’t end in 1947. The wars of 1965 and 1971 further hardened the border between the two Punjabs.
The Kartarpur Gurdwara is one of the holiest shrines in Punjab because of its historical association with Guru Nanak—this is where Nanak settled after his travels and is believed to have died. Its association with Nanak is second only to his birthplace at Nankana Sahib in Pakistan. The Kartarpur corridor will connect the pilgrims and tourists with a rich history spanning 550 years after his birth. The passage will invoke and traverse the sacred geography of pre-Partition Punjab, which was shaped and shared by diverse religious communities, especially Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs.
The present corridor thus crafts a new script of Punjab’s cultural geography of the Majha region that lies between the Ravi and Beas rivers. This riverine area was one of the most prosperous and vibrant regions of undivided Punjab. The idea of the corridor draws on the cultural image of Punjab’s plural religious and spiritual heritage through Nanak’s message of peace, love, compassion, truth, charity and healing. Sufis, Udasis, mystics and devotees enriched the culture of this fascinatingly diverse region. But this sacred landscape, dotted with mazars, gurdwaras, dargahs and shrines, was ravaged by the cartographic agenda of Partition. There were further administrative and political bruises inflicted on partitioned Punjab. The Indian Punjab, which we are all too familiar with, was constituted only in 1966. The present corridor, thus, is a critical step towards the recovery of the fragmented and forgotten cultural narrative of the united Punjab.
At present, Kartarpur is a town located in the tehsil of Shakargarh, in Narowal district, Pakistani Punjab. Before 1947, it was a part of Gurdaspur district (in India). Historically, this entire space of the Majha region was a prominent cultural site of inter-community harmony. In 1521, Nanak founded and named the new town of Kartarpur (the seat of God) and spent the last 15 years of his life there as his community of devotees grew among Hindus and Muslims.
Guru Nanak was intimately connected with the entwined sacred spaces—Dera Baba Nanak and Kartarpur—on either side of the Ravi. And it was at Kartarpur that he is said to have introduced the langar (community kitchen), which was shared as a sign of equality among believers across religious boundaries. Nanak’s sikhya (instruction) forged community and corporate worship. From Kartarpur, Nanak spread his message of love, peace and brotherhood far and wide. He came to be revered as ‘Baba Nanak Shah Faqir: Hindu ka Guru, Musalman ka Pir’ (Guru Nanak, the Great Man of God: the Hindu’s Guru and the Muslim’s Pir).
After Nanak, several of the Sikh gurus and religious communities were closely associated with this sacred landscape through their cultural meeting points at Darbar Sahib in Dera Baba Nanak, Tahli Sahib and Kartarpur Sahib. Devoted to Nanak’s memory, they were tied to sacred time, relations, connections and networks across boundaries. Significantly, it was at the time of Maharaja Ranjit Singh that Majha’s sacred geography came into prominence through royal patronage and became an integral part of Punjab’s syncretic cultural narrative. The present gurdwara at Kartarpur, the centre point of the corridor, was built in 1925 at the cost of Rs 1,35, 600, which was donated by the Maharaja of Patiala, Bhupinder Singh.
The corridor crafts a new script of Punjab’s cultural geography of the Majha region that lies between the Ravi and Beas rivers. This riverine area was one of the most prosperous and vibrant regions of undivided Punjab. The idea of the corridor draws on the cultural image of Punjab’s plural religious and spiritual heritage through Nanak’s message of peace, love, compassion, truth, charity and healing
Share this on
The Kartarpur corridor opens, links up and legitimises the most vibrant and vital part of Punjab’s multifaceted cultural traditions. The corridor also provides a corrective to the Partition’s traumatic history since 1947. The ilaqa of Gurdaspur, Narowal, Shakargarh and Sialkot remained a fertile tract in colonial times. In pre-Partition Punjab, Kartarpur was a part of Shakargarh tehsil in Gurdaspur district, which became a contested terrain in 1947. The Radcliffe Award allotted a substantial portion of the Muslim majority Gurdaspur district to India. On August 9th, 1947, a stern message from Liaquat Ali Khan to Lord Ismay, the Viceroy’s Chief of Staff, was delivered by Chaudhuri Mohammad Ali, Cabinet Secretary of Pakistan, warning that ‘if a large part of Gurdaspur were given to India, it was bound to imperil the relations between Pakistan and Britain’. Historical evidence shows that both Cyril Radcliffe (the architect of the Radcliffe Line) and Lord Mountbatten had their way and Gurdaspur was allotted to India. However, Radcliffe detached from Gurdaspur district the Shakargarh tehsil. Herein lay the rub. With the partitioning of Gurdaspur and its separation from Shakargarh, the sacred landscape of Dera Baba Nanak and Kartarpur Sahib was irreparably fractured and damaged. The most beleaguered and disappointed community, at this time, was the Sikhs.
My research shows that Shakargarh tehsil became a bone of contention among different political players—the Sikhs, the Congress and the Muslim League. Significantly, it was seen as a part of the trans-Ravi Tract, including Pathankot, parts of Sialkot and Narowal. The Congress called this area a trans-Ravi non-Muslim Tract, while the Sikhs designated it as Shri Kartarpur Tract, as it included the holy site of Kartarpur Sahib, where lay the remains of Guru Nanak, their first Guru. They argued that in this cultural area there was a majority of non-Muslims—of about 8,000—over Muslims. However, the Muslim League challenged these figures. What is interesting is that this space was seen geographically as one tract. That’s why so many non-Muslims felt that Shakargarh tehsil ought not to be kept as a ‘Muslim area’ by the Boundary Commission. They said that by no means should Shakargarh be seen as a ‘separate Muslim unit’; for them, it was part of a geographically defined trans-Ravi Tract. After the Radcliffe Award, Kartarpur came to be confined within the limits of Shakargarh. The story of borders did not end here. Ironically, at the time of Partition violence, the route from Narowal, Shakargarh, to Dera Baba Nanak became the main and shortest passage for Hindus and Sikhs crossing over from West Pakistan. A sacred space thus turned into a borderland.
AFTER PARTITION, THE Shakargarh tehsil of the erstwhile Gurdaspur district was given under the Radcliffe Award to Sialkot district and it became part of Pakistan’s Narowal subdivision. In 1991, Narowal and Shakargarh were detached from Sialkot district, and Shakargarh was included in the newly formed Narowal district. Since 1947, thanks to the Radcliffe Line, the border between the two Punjabs saw a series of conflicts. The victim was the unique cultural narrative of Punjab fashioned over the centuries. Sadly, in the 1971 India-Pakistan War, Shakargarh, a land irrigated by gurbani turned into a battlefield, as it became the vital military frontier during the battle of Basantar. Moreover, with the installation of military outfits in Narowal, Shakargarh and Sialkot, the ilaqa was transformed into borders for defending. With the mobilisation of troops, the displaced people living along the border continue to remain the worst victims. The story on the Indian side is no less gloomy. People living in the border districts of Gurdaspur, Amritsar and Ferozepur are equally deprived and vulnerable. They are victims of terrorism, smuggling and trafficking. The decline of the Majha region since 1947 is regrettable. A mutilated Majha eventually lost its distinctiveness. Dera Baba Nanak is now a sleepy border town lying to the south of the Ravi, near the India-Pakistan border. Besieged by the trauma of national territoriality, the town cries out for its historic connection with its complementary shrine of Kartarpur Sahib across the border, and takes solace in Nanak’s bani. The integral connection between Kartarpur and Dera Baba Nanak gradually diminished after independence.
After the Radcliffe Award, Kartarpur came to be confined within the limits of Shakargarh. At the time of Partition violence, the route from Narowal, Shakargarh, to Dera Baba Nanak became the main and shortest passage for Hindus and Sikhs crossing over from West Pakistan. A sacred space thus turned into a borderland.
Share this on
Yet, there is a ray of hope now with the Kartarpur corridor. It is likely to conjoin the river bed of Ravi and Beas, which is also irrigated by tributaries such as Ujh, Jallaia, Basantar and Bein. This valley of rivers has produced one of the culturally richest civilisations. The corridor will provide a window and a gateway to glimpse its remnants. Within this divided valley lie the abandoned birthplaces of our forefathers and their hidden histories. My own great grandfather’s ancestral village was Viram Dattan in Shakargarh. He became a victim of Partition violence in 1947 as he refused to leave his village. He didn’t come to India.
The Kartarpur corridor might offer new possibilities for people, on both sides of the border, to come to terms with their traumatic pasts and to connect with their ancestral memories. It can work as a roshandan in a dark room. Borders needn’t be conflicted spaces anymore. It’s hoped that the corridor would begin a new conversation. The questioning of borders can open up new opportunities of exchange, travel, communication, interconnection and expansive visions. Beyond cartographic imaginations and fixations. Beyond military aggression. Such a cultural corridor can easily navigate political boundaries and military frontiers. It initiates the possibility of engaging with a living landscape unified by attachment and connection, and seeks to transcend administrative and political mappings. It is not only movement that questions political borders, but beliefs, understandings and visions too. So that spaces of conflict, contention and violence can become multidimensional and open. So that borders can echo with the sound of Gurbani and Sufi songs rather than gunshots.
As folklore says: ‘Tut jaana, is kandyali taar ne ik din tut jaana. Eh Punjab vee mera ae te oh Punjab vee mera ae’ (This thorny wire on the border has to break one day. Both Punjabs are mine).
Nonica Datta teaches History at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. She is the author of Violence, Martyrdom and Partition: Daughter’s Testimony and Forming an Identity: A Social History of the Jats