Kartarpur notwithstanding

Earlier this month, on the 550th birth anniversary of Guru Nanak Dev, the founder of Sikhism, PM Narendra Modi finally inaugurated the much-awaited Kartarpur Corridor at Dera Baba Nanak, Gurudaspur, and flagged off the first batch of over 500 Indian pilgrims. This first batch included former prime minister Manmohan Singh, Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh, Union ministers Hardeep Singh Puri and Harsimrat Kaur Badal, Congress leader Navjot Singh Sidhu, Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee members as well as all 117 MLAs and MPs from Punjab. He thanked Pakistan PM Imran Khan, saying that “he understood and honoured the feelings of Indians about the Kartarpur Corridor and worked towards its completion.”

But Imran Khan, on the other hand, was in no mood to relent, even momentarily. He raked up the Kashmir issue even at the inauguration of the Kartarpur Corridor, alleging that Kashmiris were “still living like animals,” with restrictions on their human rights. “Today, what’s happening in Kashmir is beyond a territorial issue. This is about human rights now,” he said to those who were part of the inauguration ceremony. Imran Khan has been feeling the domestic heat for not being successful in his attempts to internationalise the Kashmir issue. So, it is to be expected that he will use every possible opportunity to raise the issue to embarrass New Delhi.

Modi has equated the opening of the Kartarpur Corridor with the fall of the Berlin Wall, arguing that “on November 9, the Berlin wall was broken down” and “today, on November 9, the Kartarpur Sahib Corridor has been opened” for which “India and Pakistan have both cooperated.” But Pakistan clearly has other priorities.

Despite growing bilateral tensions between the two neighbours, especially after India’s decision to abrogate Article 370, Pakistan and India, after tough negotiations, managed to sign the landmark agreement to operationalise the Kartarpur Corridor to allow Indian Sikh pilgrims to visit the holy Darbar Sahib in Pakistan. For New Delhi, this was important to respect the sensitivities of the Sikh community and to give a fillip to societal interactions between India and Pakistan. The Kartarpur Gurdwara Darbar Sahib is considered to be the second holiest site for Sikhs as it was built to commemorate the site where Guru Nanak spent the last 18 years of his life. 

For Pakistan, however, this can become another instrument in taking forward its anti-India agenda. The way in which this issue has been managed so far should give New Delhi no illusions about Islamabad and Rawalpindi’s intentions. The civilians and the military have been speaking in different voices even on routine administrative matters pertaining to the corridor. Just days ahead of the inauguration ceremony of the much-awaited corridor, an official video released by the Pakistan government on the Kartarpur Corridor featured Sikh separatist leaders, including Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale and his military adviser Shabeg Singh, who were killed during Operation Blue Star in 1984.

Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh laid bare his apprehensions about Pakistan’s “hidden agenda” in opening the corridor. Earlier, too, India had conveyed its objections to Pakistan over the presence of a leading Khalistani separatist in a committee appointed by Islamabad on the project. There are therefore reasonable concerns in New Delhi that the Pakistani army would try to revive the Khalistan movement and use the corridor to develop “leverage” with the Sikh community.

For Imran Khan, challenges are mounting by the day. Maulana Fazlur Rehman, who heads the dominant faction of the Jamiat ulema-e-Islam in Pakistan, has declared an open war on Khan, accusing him of failing on all fronts. The political opposition has been incarcerated by the Pakistani Army but the rapid deterioration in former prime minister Nawaz Sharif’s health has charged up the political atmosphere at a time when economic hardship imposed by the IMF conditionalities has made Khan’s domestic position increasingly vulnerable.

New Delhi’s decision to change the constitutional status of Jammu and Kashmir has challenged the fundamental assumptions of Pakistan’s India policy and it is struggling to find an appropriate response. Meanwhile, the Afghanistan situation, which at one point seemed to be tipping in Pakistan’s favour, is back to uncertainty about the American involvement and Taliban’s rise. China, too, is getting more cautious about its investments in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor with growing wariness in Beijing about investing more, despite Pakistan offering several incentives to Chinese investors and even offering its oil and gas sectors as investment opportunities.

 For any “rational” State, normalising ties with India would have been a priority under these tough circumstances, but for Pakistan’s military-intelligence apparatus, targeting India is the best way to ensure their centrality even as the foundations of the Pakistani State are beginning to crumble.

So, even as New Delhi embarks on a new journey with the opening of the Kartarpur Corridor, it should not be viewed with as a symbol of Indo-Pak rapprochement. Rather, if not handled with prudence, it has the potential to become another thorn in the bilateral ties between the two neighbours.

(The writer is Director, Studies, at Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi and Professor of International Relations, King’s College, London)

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