Dera Baba Nanak, 3 December 2016. “Munde vehle ne, nasha khula vikda hai. Te border corridor khulda nahi. Agge kuch dikhda nahi. (The youth are unemployed, drugs are freely available, the corridor has not been opened. There is no hope),” says 68-year-old Beera, who sells toys outside Gurdwara Sur Sidh Singh, within earshot of the India-Pakistan border fencing.
The corridor is a proposed 2-3 km passage that the Sikh community wants to be thrown open for access to Gurdwara Kartarpur Sahib in Pakistan, where Guru Nanak Dev is believed to have lived as a farmer.
One stroke of Sir Cyril Radcliffe’s pen cut the umbilical cord of Dera (originally Dehra, derived from “deh” — body) Baba Nanak town with the source of its sustenance: Gurdwara Kartarpur Sahib.
Residents have to travel hundreds of kilometres via Wagah and Lahore in jathas, through several checks and visa formalities, and that too only once or twice a year.
Every election, the corridor issue is revisited. Devotees used to see the Pakistan gurdwara through a pair of binoculars put up on a canopy by the BSF, but that too went missing recently.
The seemingly staunch Akali and Congress supporters in this border constituency — home to 53 per cent Jat Sikhs, 14 per cent Christians, 13 per cent OBCs, 11 per cent SCs and 0.03 per cent Buddhists too (as per the 2011 Census) — are clear that switching sides is not an option for them.
“The Akalis have given us wheat, rice and cereals almost for free,” says a gurdwara sewadar. “They have raised the old-age pension, got farmers insured. We have always voted for them and will continue to do so,” he says, but does not wish to be named.
Retired BSF officer Gurjeet Singh, overhearing the conversation, is not convinced: “Politicians, not just the Akalis, give such freebies with an ulterior motive. They don’t want educated and empowered youth who can question their decisions.”
Shakti, a vegetable vendor upset at demonetisation, feels the Congress would never have harmed the common man. No question where his loyalties lie: “We have always voted for the Congress. Modi’s note-politics has reaffirmed my choice.”
And then there are those who seem to have made a choice but will not reveal it. “Kise ne nahi bolna choun jabta lagan toh pehlan. Assi kut nahi khaani (No one will tell you their choice before the code of conduct is imposed. We don’t want to be thrashed),” says a septuagenarian.
What about the alternative to the Akali Dal and the Congress? Paramjit Singh, a resident of Kalanaur, says, “Kejriwal ne Chhotepur naal changa nahi kita. Chhotepur ne zameen bana ke ditti si party di. Kejriwal ne fasal bijni si bas.
But kam khraab ho gaya.
Te Langah (Akali candidate) ne vee sab khatam kar leya. Hun lagda votan di division vich Congress da daa lag jau [Chhotepur’s ouster has dented AAP’s chances. The Akalis are on a weak ground. The Congress might be the gainer].”
The one-time face of Aam Aadmi Party in the state, Sucha Singh Chhotepur’s native village falls in Gurdaspur district. His unceremonious exit can dent the party’s fortunes here.
Kanwaljit Kaur, among the women who go for a daily evening stroll to the spot from where Kartarpur Sahib Gurdwara can be seen, says, “Whoever will make a commitment to bring a college to the town will get my vote. I don’t want my children to travel far for basic education.”
The former BSF officer Gurjeet Singh also talks about the lack of education and job opportunities: “I have two sons. One could not study beyond Class 12 as there was no college within 30 km. The other travelled to Batala and Gurdaspur, but is still jobless. We all are tilling four acres to make ends meet.”
The talk on development again veers to the opening of the border corridor. “It can help traders open shops and earn a better livelihood. How can you manage with just Rs 50-100 a day?” says Shakti, the vegetable vendor.
Some have lost hope on the issue and give vent to frustration, accusing the Centre of not doing enough. One such organisation has put up posters claiming that the government held parleys with China for a corridor for the Kailash Mansarovar Yatra, besides exchanging land with Bangladesh, but no effort has been made for the Sikhs.
Baljit Singh Goraya, founder of Sangat Langha (corridor for devotees), is among the several bodies involved in the campaign.
Gurinder Singh Bajwa, general secretary of the Kartarpur-Ravi Ikhlaq Sanstha and potential candidate of Chhotepur’s Aapna Punjab Party, says they have been holding ‘ardaas’ at the border for 16 years, praying for a corridor.
Gurpartap Singh Khushalpur, a former Akali leader and a one-time aide of Akali candidate Sucha Singh Langah, is the AAP candidate from this predominantly rural seat.
He says the border corridor can open the doors to development, but the state government just can’t keep relying on it. “Only AAP has plans and a vision to provide job opportunities and colleges in this forgotten belt,” he claims.
Sitting Congress MLA Sukhjinder Singh Randhawa enjoys the support of PPCC chief Captain Amarinder Singh and the Delhi leadership. “Akalis have deliberately not carried out development in this region as people didn’t vote for them.
I have made a commitment that a college will be opened here when the Congress comes to power. The corridor is an issue we will keep taking up, but it needs bilateral action. It can be a pathway to peace between India and Pakistan,” he says.
SAD candidate Langah has considerable influence among the staunch Akalis. A former SGPC member, he has been taking a strong stand on Sikh issues. Though the party has announced his candidature, there is a legal hitch. He was convicted in a disproportionate assets case by a Mohali court. There is speculation that his son would eventually contest.
A twist in the tale can throw the electoral contest wide open.