Opening Kartarpur corridor, a key link

Sikh pilgrims take part in a religious ritual as they gather to celebrate the 550th birth anniversary of Guru Nanak Dev.

With the inauguration of the Kartarpur Corridor linking Dera Baba Nanak shrine in Punjab’s Gurdaspur district with Gurdwara Darbar Sahib in Kartarpur in Pakistan, an important India-Pakistan cross-border initiative has borne fruit. The Gurdwara Darbar Sahib is an important destination for Sikh pilgrims. It is here that Guru Nanak Dev propounded the basic tenets of Sikhism and spent the final 18 years of his life. Consequently, millions of Sikhs have visited this gurdwara over the centuries. However, with Partition and the Gurdwara Darbar Sahib falling on the Pakistan side of the border, such visits became difficult. Pilgrims needed to secure Pakistani visas. Besides, the journey was tedious as they had to travel by bus to Lahore before heading to Kartarpur. Consequently, many Sikhs were forced to remain content with catching a distant glimpse of the gurdwara from a high embankment near Dera Baba Nanak. The Kartarpur Corridor eases visits to the Gurdwara Darbar Sahib. Sikh pilgrims can take the roughly 4-km-long corridor to visit the gurdwara and they will not need visas to do so. Proposed first by former prime minister Atal Bihahi Vajpayee and his then Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif in 1999, the plan for Kartarpur corridor took two decades to be operationalised. This speaks volumes for the sad state of India-Pakistan relations. 

It was only a year ago that the two sides began taking the first concrete steps towards making the corridor a reality. Files were dusted and foundation stones laid in both countries. Although bilateral ties repeatedly frayed over the past year, work on the corridor progressed. The Pakistan government deserves credit for completing construction of the corridor and renovation of the gurdwara in time for the 550th birth anniversary of Guru Nanak. While several Sikhs made the pilgrimage to Kartarpur successfully, many others could not. They were not aware that they needed passports or could not afford the $20 fee levied by the Pakistan government. Officials on both sides should simplify procedures and address pilgrims’ problems sympathetically.

Importantly, Pakistan must act resolutely to allay India’s apprehensions over the possible misuse of the corridor for fueling separatism among visiting pilgrims. At the inaugural at Kartarpur last year, Khalistan activists suspected of playing a role in anti-India terrorist acts were seen shaking hands with top generals. Videos displaying the bodies of slain Khalistan terrorists were circulated recently to inflame Sikh passions. India will not standby silently if Pakistan persists with such provocative behaviour.  Given the extreme strain in bilateral relations, the Kartarpur corridor may not by itself pave the way for better bilateral relations. Still, it has opened a window of opportunity, albeit a very small one.

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