Stakes are higher now

Kartarpur Corridor

The decision by India and Pakistan to sign the Kartarpur agreement amidst one of the most prolonged chills in bilateral relations, complete absence of talks, continued exchange of firing across the Line of Control and, most of all, an ongoing, persistently strong international vilification campaign by Pakistan over India’s decision to reorganize the state of Jammu and Kashmir, show that both countries have agreed to give peace a chance. The Kartarpur Corridor will allow Indian pilgrims to undertake visa-free visit to Gurdwara Darbar Sahib, the shrine of the Sikh religion’s founder Guru Nanak Dev in Pakistan. Come November 9, when the first Jatha walks the 4.2 km-long corridor and crosses over to Pakistan to reach Kartarpur Sahib Gurudwara, it would be a historic gesture of peace from both sides and a strong confidence-building measure (CBM).

The step is symbolic for both countries in several ways. Most importantly, it marks the 550th birth anniversary of Guru Nanak. Its prioritizing of people-to-people connect between India and Pakistan at a critical juncture in bilateral relations, and its first contingent of pilgrims, including former prime minister Manmohan Singh, Union ministers Hardeep Puri, Harsimrat Kaur Badal, Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh, besides other MPs and MLAs -- a rare politically accommodative spectrum in Indian politics, and its promise to connect two sentimental peoples divided by a faulty border drawn by the British -- all point to the significance of this initiative, and to an opportunity to undo part of a historic blunder.

The role of the Punjab and central governments in this project is to be complimented for their swiftness in implementing the project, working to a deadline. The project, besides its religious significance, unites history and culture on both sides. The partition of Punjab remains a living testament to the perils of a border determined on religious grounds. The hastily drawn Radcliffe Line placed Gurdwara Darbar Sahib -- one of the holiest places for Sikhs as it is believed to be the final resting place of Sikhism’s founder Guru Nanak -- in Pakistan. Sikhs on the Indian side of the border can physically see the shrine, which is only 4 km away from the border, but for a visit, one has so far had to cover a 125-km journey to Lahore under strict visa regulations.

Previous Indian governments had begun the discussions with Pakistan over access to the shrine and in 2000, Pakistan agreed to allow Sikh pilgrims from India to visit the shrine visa-free by constructing a bridge from the Indian side of the border up to the shrine. However, construction work on the corridor began only in 2018. The foundation stone was laid in India and Pakistan on November 26 and 28, 2018, respectively. The Indian side had clarified then that this did not mean “bilateral dialogue will start” and hence assuming that this would automatically lead to peace talks would be an overestimation. This initiative will encourage religious tourism and, in turn, foster people-to-people contact. The proposal and implementation of CBMs is difficult, especially given the strained nature of current Indo-Pak ties. Hence, for sustained engagement between the two countries, the Kartarpur Corridor helps to prioritize cultural and religious relations over political relations.

This mechanism of separating a segment of the relationship from the overall relations creates more lateral space for positive diplomacy and normalization of ties between countries and has been a healthy practice between quite a few countries. The ongoing US-China trade war alongside cooperation between the two countries in other areas is a result of such a mechanism. That India and Pakistan are also trying it out, with cooperation appearing on a parallel track with persistent conflict, is heartening.

From an international relations perspective, the step to sign the agreement stands out due to its timing and the nature of relationship between India and Pakistan at this juncture – drawing reminiscences and possibly inspiration from the past. Even during the height of the Cold War, particularly after the dangerously provocative Bay of Pigs crisis, the Soviet Union and the United States moved towards détente, setting up the platform for one of the most important CBMs between the two sides. The decision led to the signing of arms control treaties such as SALT I and the Helsinki Accords mechanism for improving relations between the Communist bloc and the West. Although the success of these initiatives by themselves can be debated, they were relationship-transforming initiatives, especially in their potential to control escalation when all other parameters of war were still high.

There are challenges galore to the Kartarpur Corridor initiative. The first and foremost challenge is that the corridor could end up as one more path opened to a hostile neighbour. Already, the Punjab border with Pakistan is notorious for arms and drug smuggling. Chief Minister Amarinder Singh had recently urged the Union Home Ministry to look into the incident of drones dropping illegal arms onto the Indian side, a measure of the gravity of the challenge. AK-47 rifles, pistols, satellite phones and hand grenades were dropped by drones at Rajoke village near Kalra in Punjab’s Tarn Taran district from across the border. Besides, the drug supplies from Pakistan already threatens the prospects of an entire generation of youth in Punjab.

India’s guarded approach to opening the Kartarpur Corridor also has to do with the challenge it could face from Khalistan separatists. Towards this, Pakistan’s removal of Khalistani radical Gopal Singh Chawla and three other Khalistani leaders from the Pakistan Sikh Gurudwara Prabhandhak Committee (PSGPC) is a positive step towards bilateral engagement. A befitting follow-up to this step by Pakistan would be for it to waive the $20 charge levied on entry fee for the Kartarpur pilgrims.

Notwithstanding these challenges, there are opportunities for both countries to kickstart dialogue, because even more is at stake for both countries now than ever before.

(Mishra is Deputy Director, Kalinga Institute of Indo-Pacific Studies; Saha is a PG student, Jadavpur University)

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