The mere mention of Pakistan conjures up images of terrorism and rivalry in our minds. Most of us believe that those staying on the other side of the border are our arch enemies who train terrorists and gather resources to spill blood on our land.
In that scenario, my decision to visit Pakistan was treated with much disdain and was termed completely suicidal. Most of my acquaintances asked me how can I ever think of visiting the country that has been blamed for killing so many innocents in our land and creating unrest in Kashmir.
But still I was determined to see that piece of land that very much belonged to us before the Partition of 1947 etched deep lines of animosity in our hearts.
A Nervous Traveller
My nervousness of visiting Pakistan could only be understood from the fact that I offered prayers at Golden Temple, a site of Sikh pilgrimage, thrice in one day seeking the help of almighty and also promising some donation to the Gurudwara if I return safely.
The fears of visiting a ‘terrorist country’ ran so deep in my mind that I shamelessly didn’t hesitate to even strike a deal with the almighty.
On 21 November 2018, I reached Atari railway station in Amritsar district with a pounding heart and a prayer on my lips.
Even at the railway station, thoughts of changing my decision continued to haunt me but somehow my ‘deal with the almighty’ gave me the courage not to turn back.
Around 3,500 people from across the country, all of them Sikhs, had gathered at the small railway station in the early morning hours waiting for the formalities to be completed.
The early morning chill at Atari was broken with a common discussion among the pilgrims that whether it was safe to visit the neighbouring country and how people would treat us.
Several pilgrims were seen making calls to their relatives before taking the train to Wagah, the first railway station of Pakistan just a few metres away from Atari.
The mismanagement of crowd by Punjab Police at Atari made situation worse for the pilgrims who had to stand for several hours under the blazing sun to get security clearances.
The most pathetic was the condition of the senior citizens, who had to stand with heavy bags on their heads without any water and sitting facilities.
It was almost a stampede-like situation as people jostled for an inch of space to stand near the railway tracks.
The pilgrims were dispatched in three special trains sent from across the border. It was evening by the time the last train crossed the border and reached Wagah.
Soon, the mobile phones lost their connectivity and turned into dead boxes as the train crossed the gate that divides the two countries. My fears increased with thoughts of uncertainty lying ahead.
The Land on the Other Side
As I set my foot on the station, I saw huge banners welcoming us to Pakistan and cops garlanding the visitors. I was a bit relieved like several others.
The crowd management on the other side seemed a bit better than their counterparts in Punjab as the officials were polite and urged people with folded hands to observe patience as we were their mehmans (guests).
The last train left Wagah for Nankana Sahib, the birth place of Guru Nanak Dev ji, almost at midnight along with cops for our security inside the train. The 83-kilometre distance was covered in five hours.
At Nankana Sahib, the security arrangements were elaborate and pilgrims were provided with proper accommodation and food.
We were advised by our panic-struck fellow pilgrims to refrain from indulging in a conversation with the locals while roaming in the streets for our safety. After all, fear ruled our minds.
‘Tussi Sadde Pra Ho!’
Surprisingly, as we walked on the streets, people gave us a big smile and then rushed to us and enquired if we were Indians. When we told them that we were indeed Indians, they gave us a warm hug and said in Punjabi, “tussi sadde pra ho” (we are brothers).
Soon, they surrounded us and opened up with the stories of Partition as to how their elders were forced to leave India and relocate here.
“My parents lived like a family with our Hindu neighbours at Jalandhar in Punjab and never had any issue but the Partition divided us and forced them to leave everything and settle here. The Britishers should be cursed for dividing us, but they have failed to divide our hearts,” said Saifullah Khalid, an octogenarian residing at Nankana Sahib.
Despite of love and friendship, I also noticed a strong movement for Khalistan here with flags being waved during the procession to celebrate Guru Nanak Dev ji’s birthday.
Gopal Singh Chawla, a pro-Khalistani leader, seemed to be spearheading the movement for a separate land for Sikhs. Banners of Khalistan becoming a reality in the coming years were seen hanging at Nankana Sahib.
The next stop of the Pilgrims was Hasanabdal, a city in Attock District of Punjab Province in Pakistan, located 40 km northwest of the country's capital city, Islamabad.
It is home to Gurdwara Panja Sahib, one of the most sacred sites in Sikhism. During our two-day visit there, we were not allowed to step outside because of security reasons.
The last destination was Lahore, the capital city of the Pakistani province of Punjab located at a distance of just 23 kilometres from the Wagah border.
It has Gurudwara Dera Sahib, another important place for Sikhs.
Getting to Know Lahore
There goes a saying in Punjabi that, “Jinne Lahore nai Vekhaya, O Jammai nai,” (The person who has not seen Lahore is not born yet).
Lahore is a beautiful city with a rich history and of course mouth-watering cuisine of non-vegetarian dishes.
Stories of Partition were waiting for us at every nook and corner of Lahore.
I found that people have special warmth and affection towards Indians and clicked selfies with us.
The autowallas often refused to charge a fare from us saying that we were their guests or charged negligible amount when coaxed.
I must reveal that twice in Lahore while having dinner my bills were cleared by fellow diners in the restaurant who told me that it was their duty to treat mehmans with reverence.
The Kartarpur Sahib Corridor and Peace With India
I also consider myself lucky to be at the groundbreaking ceremony for opening Kartarpur Sahib Corridor for Sikh pilgrims at Narowal, some 120 km from Lahore on 28 November.
Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan laid the foundation stone of the 4 km project on the Pakistan side amidst the presence of senior Indian politicians Navjot Singh Sidhu and Harsimrat Kaur Badal.
Imran Khan made it clear that he wanted peace with India and was ready to walk two steps ahead in making peace even if India moves one step.
During my stay in Lahore, I roamed fearlessly in the streets even during the night. People were hospitable and warm.
Most of our travels in Pakistan were in the railways and buses that moved like a convoy guarded by hundreds of armed men-in-uniform.
As my ten days visa to Pakistan ended on 30 November, I found that some of my new friends had arrived at Wagah border to bid us a goodbye with heavy hearts. Tears were rolling down their cheeks and they requested us to visit again.
Zuber Ali, who became my closest friend during a short visit, urged me to pray before Waheguru (almighty) that they be allowed to visit Ajmer Sharif and other holy Muslim shrines in India with relaxation in visa rules.
As the train began to chug out from Wagah towards Atari, my mind was filled with thoughts of love towards Pakistanis.
I thought that how the entire clan has been branded terrorists by a section of media and politicians for their own gains while they are such hospitable and peace-loving people.
Of course, good and bad people reside in every part of the world but why a whole nation has to be blamed for the wrongdoings of bunch of people.
It’s time to change our opinion towards them so that peace and love assuages the pain of Partition and blurs the line that divides us.
(The writer is a Kolkata-based freelance journalist. He can be reached @gurus3398. The opinions express are the author's alone. The Quint neither endorses it nor is responsible for the same.)
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