Pilgrims visiting the Dera Baba Nanak shrine in Gurdaspur often peer into binoculars installed there to gaze in reverence upon Kartarpur Sahib gurdwara in Pakistan, just a few kilometers across the border.
For the devout in Punjab, 2019 will be a year to remember. As Sikhs celebrated the 550th birth anniversary of Guru Nanak Dev, Pakistan allowed unprecedented access to Gurdwara Darbar Sahib in Kartarpur, the place where the founder of their faith spent his final years.
Pilgrims visiting the Dera Baba Nanak shrine in Gurdaspur often peer into binoculars installed there to gaze in reverence upon Kartarpur Sahib gurdwara in Pakistan, just a few kilometers across the border. Now, a new road link, inaugurated on November 9, allows visa-free pilgrimage to the Pakistani shrine. Much drama surrounded the inauguration of the Kartarpur Corridor, as well as the celebration of the Guru Nanak Dev anniversary in Punjab.
Amid heightened tensions between the two countries over the Balakot air strikes in Pakistani territory, New Delhi and Islamabad quibbled over the draft Kartarpur agreement. Pakistan insisted on charging a service fee of US20 per pilgrim. The Punjab government and the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC) also held a series of meetings, but failed to reach agreement on joint celebrations of the Baba Nanak anniversary. Finally, there were two separate stages set up at the venue in Kapurthala’s Sultanpur Lodhi town.
President Ram Nath Kovind paid obeisance at the gurdwara there and Prime Minister Narendra Modi came for the Kartarpur Corridor launch, thanking his counterpart Imran Khan for respecting sentiments in India on the shrine. The ruling Congress outshone the BJP-Shiromani Akali Dal combine in the Lok Sabha polls in May by winning eight out of the 13 parliamentary seats in Punjab, keeping the Narendra Modi “wave” at bay.
The winning streak continued with the Congress scoring at three out of the four assembly bypolls during the year, boosting the image of Amarinder Singh as a regional leader. But ex-cricketer and a cabinet colleague Navjot Singh Sidhu gave him a tough time. Both leaders exchanged barbs as the simmering tension between them came out in the open.
Sidhu suggested that Amarinder Singh had gone soft on the Badals, who lead the rival Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD). Singh blamed the performance of the local government department led by Sidhu for the party’s poor Lok Sabha performance in urban areas. Then, in June, a cabinet reshuffle cut Sidhu to size, virtually forcing him to resign from the state cabinet. But Sidhu was not the only challenge from within for Amarinder Singh.
The ruling party MLAs clamoured for berths in the state ministry. Despite opposition protests, the Punjab government appointed six Congress MLAs as advisors to the CM, accommodating them in the power structure. The assembly tweaked the law to ensure that they will not be disqualified for holding offices of profit. The Akali Dal had its own share of problems. Veteran leader Sukhdev Singh Dhindsa, who resigned from party posts in April, joined hands with some others seeking to “liberate” the party from the Badal family.
Sukhbir Singh Badal, however, was re-elected as party president for the third time as the Akali Dal marked its 99th foundation day. The 2015 desecration of the Guru Granth Sahib in Faridkot district – and a police firing at protesters — remained a politically and religiously sensitive matter.
The Punjab government criticized the CBI decision to reopen its probe, saying it was a ploy to delay the investigation and stop action against the Badals, who were in power then. The Punjab government continued to caution against a possible revival of the pro-Khalistan groups abroad, with Amarinder Singh even warning against misuse of the Kartarpur Corridor by Pakistan.
Reported drone sightings in Punjab’s border areas seemed to substantiate his claim about Pakistan’s ISI. The state government worked for the removal of a Google app, saying it was being used by an overseas Sikh group lobbying for Punjab’s secession through its “Referendum 2020” campaign.
The state faced problems in paying salaries to its employees on time, and blamed a part of it on the delay in the release of Rs 4,100 crore the Centre owed it as Goods and Services Tax (GST) compensation.
The year will also be remembered for a string of tragedies. Over 20 people died in a firecracker factory blast in Batala, a two-year-old fell to his death in an abandoned borewell in Sangrur and floods caused extensive damage in districts like Jalandhar and Roopnagar.
And as experts debated solutions and politicians blamed each other, Punjab farmers continued to burn stubble after harvesting paddy, contributing to the smog that engulfed New Delhi and other parts of North India for days in November.