From The Ground In Punjab: The Victory Path Of This Constituency Goes through Pakistan
As over a million people cast their votes later this weekend in Gurdaspur Lok Sabha constituency, the NDA government’s decision to accelerate work on Kartarpur Corridor project will be at the back of their minds.
The Gurdaspur Lok Sabha constituency, the bastion of the late Vinod Khanna, who passed away in 2017, is one of the few in the country where voters also factor in India’s foreign policy before making their electoral choice. Dera Baba Nanak, Dina Nagar and Bhoa — the towns located on the India-Pakistan border — are instrumental to the voting preferences within the constituency. On the other hand, the region across Qadian, Pathankot, Gurdaspur, Batala and Fatehgarh Churian is the agricultural belt with most farmers cultivating sugarcane.
The last five years have been quite rough for this constituency. In July 2015, three civilians and four policemen were killed after three shooters, disguised as army men, opened fire on a Punjab Roadways bus returning from Jammu and Kashmir.
At the time of attack, the bus was carrying 75 passengers, thanks to the bravery of the bus driver, Nanak Chand, who drove the bus through the gunfire and headed towards a government hospital, dozens of lives were saved.
Later, the gunmen hijacked a car and attacked the Dina Nagar police station. Bombs were also found and diffused on the railway line connecting the towns of Dina Nagar and Jhakholari.
A few months later, in January 2016, the Pathankot Air Force Station which is a part of the Western Air Command was attacked in one of the deadliest terrorist attacks in recent years. The operation continued for almost four days, resulting in the death of five terrorists. Six soldiers were martyred in the attack. Both attacks were facilitated by terrorist groups from Pakistan, and not any Sikh separatist groups, as some initial reports said.
In April 2017, sitting Member of Parliament Vinod Khanna passed away. He had been a four-time MP from Gurdaspur, and even today, locals remember the turnout that was witnessed when Khanna had come, for the first time, to campaign in the constituency over two decades ago. “He was an actor from Bombay then, but for the people here, he was one of us. His passing away was a personal loss for Gurdaspur,” a local recalls.
Backed by the entire machinery of Congress’ state unit, candidate Sunil Jakhar won the by-election for the seat in 2017. His victory followed the landslide majority of Congress under Captain Amarinder Singh in the state elections a few months earlier. Jakhar garnered 58 per cent of the vote share, leaving Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) Swaran Salaria far behind. This time, Jakhar is against BJP’s new political discovery, Sunny Deol, and Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) candidate Peter Masih.
The competition brings together contenders from two extreme ends of the political spectrum. Jakhar, a political veteran, and proposed as the next and first Hindu Chief Minister of Punjab by Captain Amarinder Singh, is up against Sunny Deol, who can be best described as an intern in the multi-state corporation of Indian Politics. What works for the latter, however, is the party that backs him, for it has shown success on the Pakistan policy front, an issue critical to the residents of Gurdaspur constituency.
The previous voting preferences of the constituency are not much of help now to predict an outcome as the political equation has wholly changed. In 2017, out of the nine state assembly seats from the region, seven were won by the Congress, and one each by BJP and the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD). However, on the ground, those numbers feel a lifetime ago, for so much has changed since then.
From The Ground On India-Pakistan Border: Navigating Through The Kartarpur Corridor
Located 40-odd kilometres away from the holy town of Amritsar, Dera Baba Nanak, as a town, doesn't inspire a lot. The road to the town is a single lane, with merely enough room for two cars to pass each other. The town is a maze of narrow lanes with the office of the town authorities on the outskirts. Farming is critical to the subsistence of the six-odd thousand people residing here.
However, if all goes well, starting November later this year, this town of 6,000 people would irreversibly change tourism in Punjab for good, for this is where the Kartarpur Corridor begins.
The first guru of Sikhism, Guru Nanak, founded the town of Kartarpur in 1504, more than 20 years before North India would have its Mughal king. The town was established on the bank of river Ravi and became the first Sikh commune.
After his death in 1539, both Hindus and Muslims raised mausoleums to commemorate the Guru. However, with time and because of consistent flooding in Ravi, they were destroyed. Eventually, Dera Baba Nanak was formed on the other side of the river as the new commune.
During the Partition of 1947, Kartarpur, located on the right side of Ravi, went to Pakistan while Dera Baba Nanak became a part of India. To put things in perspective, Dera Baba Nanak and Kartarpur are only a 45-minutes walk apart. Today, over five centuries later, this is where the electoral battle for a contemporary civilisation is being fought.
The proposal for the Kartarpur Corridor was first discussed between former prime ministers Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Nawaz Sharif in 1999 as a part of the Delhi-Lahore bus diplomacy. The same was again pitched during the Congress government in 2004 and 2008 but without much headway.
In a miraculous turn of events in 2018, Pakistan expressed its willingness to establish the corridor before the 550th birth anniversary of Guru Nanak in November 2019. The state government passed a resolution for the same, took it up with the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government at the Centre, and in November last year, the foundation stone for the project was laid by the Indian Vice-President, Venkaiah Naidu, and two days later, by Pakistan's Prime Minister Imran Khan.
Why Kartarpur Corridor Matters?
When over a million voters of the constituency cast their votes later this weekend, at the back of their mind would be the developments on the outskirts of Dera Baba Nanak and around Gurdwara Shaheed Baba Sidh Saun Randhawa located on the India-Pakistan border, for this is the ground zero for the Kartarpur Corridor.
The work is already underway. Over 100 acres of land, owned by around 200 farmers, from the three nearby villages of Chandu Nangal, Jaurian Khurd and Pakhoke Tahli Sahib was already acquired by March.
Swarajya interacted with a few farmers in the region whose lands have been acquired for the project. As per the instructions of the local law enforcement agencies to Swarajya, their identities shall not be revealed.
“Earlier, there was some disappointment due to the acquisition because the price offered by the government was too low,” one farmer with a holding of less than an acre reveals. “There were some protests as well, but eventually we all settled for the amount offered.”
The market price for the land in this region is Rs 17 lakh per acre. However, the farmers have been compensated for each acre with an amount around Rs 35 lakh. The initial demands were for Rs 60-80 lakh amongst some farmers.
The process of the awarding of compensation from the Union Ministry of Road Transport and Highways is underway since last month. The ministry shall be responsible for the construction of the entire corridor, and the project will be under the supervision of the central government.
Swarajya spoke to the farmer with the biggest land holding around Dera Baba Nanak. “Over 15 acres of the 50 acres land immediately around Dera Baba Nanak belongs to our family, and we are happy it has been acquired for the corridor. It is he (referring to Guru Nanak) who gives and it is he to whom it belongs,” he says with folded hands.
Upon asking about the compensation, he says, “yes, there were some problems earlier, but they were mostly by small farmers who would lose their livelihood. Now, it is settled, and the compensation is more than fair and just.” In the acquisition, he would be awarded a compensation of more than Rs 5.5 crore.
“We would have given up our land at the market price, had they asked us to do. There is no greed because this corridor is a service to Sikhism, and no government can put a price on it. We all are waiting for the corridor to start. This is the land of the Guru, we are only his caretakers,” he concludes.
The Kartarpur Corridor starts from the India-Pakistan border and is 4 kilometres inside the territory of Pakistan. On the Indian side, however, a sprawling complex spread over 50 acres is already under construction.
Speaking to Swarajya, a local official explains, “technically, the corridor, or the path, lies completely in Pakistan. On our side, there is going to be a massive complex that can host over 15,000 people at any given time. There will be offices to take care of the visa formalities, and given the government is trying to negotiate that over 3,000 people can use the corridor each day, the office complex itself will be huge”.
The negotiations between the two national governments have been concentrated around the number of pilgrims allowed on any given day while the Pakistan government isn’t agreeing to more than 500 pilgrims each day, the Indian government hopes for at least 3,000 people to have regulated access to the corridor every day.
Another local official, in a conversation with Swarajya, spoke about the importance of the negotiation. “The complex will not only be for people who want to visit Kartarpur Corridor, but also for ones that may want to see it from the border without crossing over to the other side. We are anticipating Sikhs from world over, so 500 pilgrims a day is not satisfactory for the reservations will go on forever, and dent the tourism prospects here”.
Further, he added, “an international hotel chain is going to be a part of the complex, along with scores of guesthouses and other budget hotels for pilgrims from all over the country. Shopping spaces and other commercial areas are also being planned, and therefore, the economic potential of the entire corridor boils down to the number of pilgrims allowed each day.”
The Kartarpur Corridor is expected to generate employment for thousands of residents in the districts of Gurdaspur and Amritsar, along with people from other parts of the state. The local artefact industry will also witness a boom. A new national highway connecting Gurdaspur to Dera Baba Nanak is also being constructed for ease of access. The road from Amritsar is also expected to be upgraded to a four-lane highway.
Sunny Deol: Too Simple A Gamble By The BJP?
In the other parts of the constituency, the presence of Sunny Deol has been received well. While the actor-turned-politician looked out of place initially, the last few days of his campaign have seen some momentum.
“We all want to see him,” a local says. “When Vinod Khanna came here, he was not a star anymore, so it does not matter if Sunny paaji is no longer doing movies.”
His roadshows across the Hindu-dominated region of Gurdaspur, Dina Nagar and Pathankot, an area critical to the prospects of Jakhar, have added to the woes of the local cadre of the Congress. Everywhere, the roadshows have been well received, even though the actor refused to comment on any policy, from the air-strikes to goods and services tax (GST).
“He says he has come here to learn about our problems, and take them up with the government at the Centre. He is Modi’s messenger for Gurdaspur,” a local remarks. Another sceptical local adds, “they all come during the election season, but not many come back. He does not step out of his car, so why will he come back once he wins.”
Jakhar’s campaign, on the other hand, was given a boost by the visit of Priyanka Gandhi earlier this week. The roadshow in Pathankot saw a vast crowd. Given how most constituencies in the state saw a marginal difference of a few thousand votes between the winner and the loser, every vote will be critical.
Jakhar’s Battle On Multiple Fronts
Congress’ Jakhar has attacked Deol for being an outsider and being alien to the local issues here. However, in our conversation with the local sugarcane farmers, even Jakhar came across as a distant observer to the plight of the farmers.
“We were angry with the SAD-BJP government after demonetisation, and therefore, we voted for Kaptaan Saab. However, our problems have increased in his tenure.”
Elaborating further, “we are being starved by the sugar mill owners here. They are paying less than what the government has asked them to do, and we are losing at least Rs 50 on every quintal. Moreover, they are going on with their cane crushing operations without proper paperwork, and we are losing money. The state government has cheated us,” they say.
The problem has been of payments as well. Sugar mills have failed to compensate the farmers on time, resulting in delay of payments for hundreds of farmers in the constituency, with the arrears amounting to a few hundred crore rupees in Gurdaspur alone.
Another battle for Jakhar will come from the presence of candidate of the Aam Aadmi Party, Peter Masih. Given 8 per cent of the population in Gurdaspur comprises of Christians, the vote diversion from the Jakhar camp will be inevitable and may prove to be a headache for the Congress candidate if the contest gets too close.
The foreign policy of Narendra Modi government against Pakistan will also be necessary. Given the constituency saw two terrorist attacks early in the tenure of the government, the subsequent response was received well by the locals.
“Pakistan needs to be taught a lesson, and now they know that they cannot go about their usual ways when it comes to India. Modi has changed everything after the air-strike,” a local says.
Industrial and infrastructural investments in the region have suffered due to the volatile conditions on the border. This has hurt employment prospects. While some locals laud Congress leader Navjot Singh Sidhu for initiating a discussion on the corridor, the majority support is for Modi for his decisive action against the terrorist camps across the border.
Jakhar, in his campaign, has targeted Modi for being a warmonger. However, the response on the ground is mixed. “We saw our city being attacked a few years ago, and if the Pakistanis are being made to pay for it, it’s good,” a local juice vendor says.
Another issue for Jakhar comes from the Chief Minister himself. Addressing a rally and in an attempt to woo the Hindu voter base in the Pathankot region, Amarinder Singh remarked that Jakhar could go on to become the first Hindu Chief Minister of the state. Jakhar was quick to politely dismiss the possibility, but the damage had been done.
Speaking to Swarajya, a local Congress leader said, “this statement by Kaptaan Saab is not going to go down well with the Sikh cadre of the party, and they might as well look to dampen the prospects of a victory. His victory will put an end to the idea of a Hindu CM,” he says.
At A Tipping Point
Gurdaspur, as a constituency, is at a tipping point, for its future shall be decided by the domestic policies on the eastern side, and by the foreign ones on the western side on the India-Pakistan border. In November 2019, the inauguration of the Kartarpur Corridor shall change the tourism dynamics in the state.
“Earlier, everyone went to Amritsar and Attari, but now they’ll all come to Kartarpur,” a hopeful farmer in Dera Baba Nanak says. “We intend to invest our money from the compensation of the acquired land in a guesthouse for the people coming from the big cities. This is our (referring to the Sikh fraternity) land, and this is where we shall always be,” he concludes.
Even With A Lack Of Experience Or Expertise, The Tide Is Favouring Sunny Deol
Sunny Deol may not have the answers to the most straightforward policy questions as of now, but he is the best bet for the local population, for the next few months of development in Gurdaspur shall write its economic and social fate for the future years. Jakhar, however sharp and seasoned in his political outlook, has not been able to cash in on the mandate given to him in 2017, and the anger against the state government may hurt his chances this time.
Eventually, it will all come down to the developments around the Kartarpur Corridor. Speaking to Swarajya, a senior professor summed up the significance of the event in the following words from a Sikh Prayer.
“ਹੇ ਅਕਾਲ ਪੁਰਖ ਆਪਣੇ ਪੰਥ ਦੇ ਸਦਾ ਸਹਾਈ ਦਾਤਾਰ ਜੀਓ ! ਸ੍ਰੀ ਨਨਕਾਣਾ ਸਾਹਿਬ ਤੇ ਹੋਰ ਗੁਰਦੁਆਰਿਆਂ ਗੁਰਧਾਮਾਂ ਦੇ, ਜਿਨ੍ਹਾਂ ਤੋਂ ਪੰਥ ਨੂੰ ਵਿਛੋੜਿਆ ਗਿਆ ਹੈ, ਖੁਲ੍ਹੇ ਦਰਸ਼ਨ ਦੀਦਾਰ ਤੇ ਸੇਵਾ ਸੰਭਾਲ ਦਾ ਦਾਨ ਖ਼ਾਲਸਾ ਜੀ ਨੂੰ ਬਖਸ਼ੋ।”
“O Immortal Being, eternal helper of Thy Panth, benevolent Lord, bestow on the Khalsa the beneficence of unobstructed visit and free management of Nankana Sahib and other shrines and places of the Guru from which the Panth has been separated”.
She further explains, “when upon the Partition of India, many historical Gurdwaras went to Pakistan, the Akal Takht (highest seat of justice in Sikhism) enjoined upon the entire Khalsa Panth for the above lines to be added to the ardas (prayer) sung in the Golden Temple. This was in January, 1952, and over 60 years later, those prayers are being answered with the opening up of the corridor. It’s a big moment for Sikhs, not only in Gurdaspur, but world over.”
Turns out, the election in Gurdaspur micro-mirrors the election reality across India.
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