The Kartarpur corridor initiative

Passage to peace?

Print edition : January 04, 2019

Vice President M. Venkaiah Naidu pressing the remote button to lay the foundation stone for the Kartarpur corridor on the Indian side while Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh looks on, in Gurdaspur on November 26. Photo: AKHILESH KUMAR

Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan at foundation-stone-laying ceremony in Kartarpur on November 28. Photo: K.M. Chaudary/AP

Navjot Singh Sidhu at the India-Pakistan Wagah Post on November 29, on his way back after attending Pakistan’s ceremony. Photo: PTI

The Kartarpur corridor initiative of Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan brings a glimmer of hope for bilateral ties, though it has not yet been followed by any concrete moves to restart the stalled dialogue process.

Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan’s surprise decision to open the long-closed “Kartarpur corridor” for Sikh pilgrims from India to visit one of their most revered places of pilgrimage was a confidence-building measure of some significance in the otherwise dismal scenario of India-Pakistan ties. The Gurdwara Darbar Sahib at Kartarpur was the place in which Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism, spent his last 18 years. The original shrine was built after the Guru’s demise in 1539. The shrine, which was refurbished by the Pakistani government in 1995, lies a mere three kilometres from the Indian border in Gurdaspur district. The year 2019 will mark the 550th birth anniversary of Guru Nanak. Celebrations have already started with the Punjab government and the Centre announcing plans to commemorate the occasion in a big way.

The other important place of pilgrimage for Sikhs in Pakistan is Nankana Sahib, the birthplace of Guru Nanak. Since Partition, Indian Sikh pilgrims were allowed in restricted numbers to visit the two holy shrines during important religious festivals. Now, they will be able to visit Kartarpur without going through the long hassle of obtaining a Pakistani visa. Former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee had raised the issue of a visa-free Kartarpur corridor during his visit to Lahore in 1999. Prime Minister Narendra Modi went to the extent of comparing the opening of the Kartarpur corridor to the fall of the Berlin Wall, which had led to the reunification of Germany and precipitated the collapse of the Socialist Bloc. Pakistan is only looking for the resumption of the stalled dialogue process.

The Pakistani initiative, which was taken immediately after the new government assumed office, took the Indian government by surprise. Indian intelligence officers initially described it as a ploy by the Pakistan Army and the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). They pointed out that it was the Pakistan Army chief, General Q.M. Bajwa, who first mooted the idea to the cricketer-turned-politician Navjot Singh Sidhu when he was in Islamabad to attend Imran Khan’s swearing-in ceremony. Sidhu is a senior Minister in the Congress-run government of Punjab.

Some senior Indian security officials have said that the corridor will be used by Pakistani intelligence agencies to further their goals. Security experts as well as politicians are saying that efforts are already afoot to relaunch militant activity in Punjab. There has been a noticeable spurt in militancy in recent years. In November, three people were killed in a a grenade attack on a Nirankari meeting in Amritsar. Border Security Force (BSF) Director General Rajni Kant Mishra, however, said recently that policing the Kartarpur corridor would be a relatively easy task.

At the foundation-stone-laying ceremony of the corridor on November 28, Imran Khan said that war was no longer an option for the two nuclear-armed neighbours and reiterated that his government was willing to talk to India to resolve all outstanding issues, including Kashmir. From the very outset of his tenure, Imran Khan has been talking about the urgent need for the two countries to restart the dialogue process. “If India takes one step forward, then we will take two steps forward for friendship,” he said soon after being sworn in as Prime Minister. Now, however, he appears pessimistic about the prospects of a dialogue following India’s move to cancel the meeting of Foreign Ministers and the spurning of his offer of talks. Talks will probably have to wait until India’s general election is over in 2019, he has said.

Modi’s effusive welcome of the Pakistani initiative has not been backed by concrete actions to revive the stalled dialogue process. On November 26, Vice President M. Venkaiah Naidu and Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh laid the foundation stone for the corridor on the Indian side, from Dera Baba Nanak in Gurdaspur to the international border between the two countries. Pakistan’s invitation to External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj to attend the Pakistani foundation-stone-laying ceremony on November 28 in Kartarpur was politely declined. Another notable absentee was Amarinder Singh, who said it would be inappropriate to attend the event at a time when Indian soldiers were being killed along the Line of Control (LoC). He was critical of his Cabinet colleague Sidhu for attending it. Sidhu had to clarify that he had Congress president Rahul Gandhi’s green signal for attending the ceremony. Union Ministers Harsimrat Kaur and Hardeep Puri represented India at the Pakistani event.

Sidhu’s role

Pakistan Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi’s comment that Imran Khan “bowled a googly” to his Indian counterpart by opening the Kartarpur corridor did not go down well in New Delhi. Qureshi had implied that Modi had been taken by surprise by the move and did not know how to respond. Sushma Swaraj said the comment reflected Qureshi’s lack of respect for Sikh culture and sentiments. Imran Khan also distanced himself from Qureshi’s remark.

It was Sidhu, the only Indian VIP who had accepted Imran Khan’s invitation to the November 28 ceremony, who was given the “man of the match” award by the Pakistani adjudicators. Sidhu had been criticised by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) for warmly embracing the Pakistan Army chief at Imran Khan’s swearing-in. According to Sidhu, the embrace happened after he was given advance notice by the General about plans for the Kartarpur corridor. “Gen. Bajwa told me we want peace,” Sidhu told the Indian media on his return from Islamabad. When he briefed Sushma Swaraj about the proposal, he was rebuffed despite the fact that India had been demanding the creation of such a corridor for a long time. After Pakistan went ahead and announced the setting up of the Kartarpur corridor, the External Affairs Ministry’s spokesperson said that Pakistan should keep its promise of opening up the corridor “expeditiously”.

Imran Khan has said that his government will be building many facilities, including hotels and restaurants, for the large number of pilgrims who are expected to use the corridor. He has, however, lamented the negative spin that sections of the Indian establishment and the media have given to the diplomatic initiative. He has said that the opening up of Hindu and Sikh shrines for pilgrims from India was one of the promises in the election manifesto of his party, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI).

The Pakistan Army’s spokesman has said that the corridor will be completed in six months. Three thousand pilgrims will be able to visit the shrine every day once the corridor is functional. Imran Khan has been emphasising that the civilian government, the opposition and the Pakistan Army are all on the same page about both the Kartarpur corridor and the peace initiative in general.

The Pakistan Army chief has in fact been sending signals since July that he wants to improve relations with India. Gen. Bajwa and the Pakistani military, which played a key role in propelling Imran Khan to power, have realised that the state of the country’s economy is more important than the continued rivalry with India. In a speech in November 2017, Gen. Bajwa said that Pakistan’s economic well-being was connected to the overall security situation in the wider region. He also said that the only way to solve the conflict between India and Pakistan was through dialogue. He has even tried to reach out to the Indian Army chief, General Bipin Rawat, to find a way to ease tensions. The two chiefs had served together on United Nations peacekeeping missions in Africa and share a personal rapport.

External pressure

There is also pressure from China and the United States on the Pakistani political and military establishment to put the Kashmir issue on the back burner and normalise relations with India. China does not view favourably the rise of terrorism and the Pakistani establishment’s role in using and encouraging some terrorist groups to achieve strategic goals in Afghanistan and Kashmir. Also, it does not want its huge investments in the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) to come under threat from terror groups.

The CPEC is part of China’s ambitious One Belt One Road project. The Pakistan Army’s help, from Beijing’s point of view, is urgently needed to stabilise the volatile region through which the CPEC passes. Most of Pakistan’s Army is currently deployed along the border with India.

The U.S. has drastically cut its aid package to Pakistan citing Islamabad’s lack of commitment to fighting terrorism. Islamabad wants to show the international community that it wants to talk with New Delhi. India’s stonewalling of Pakistani peace initiatives has not escaped the international community’s notice, which has realised that the turmoil in Kashmir is internally generated to a great extent and that it is driven mainly by people’s discontent and anger in the Valley.

Better relations with India will open up trade and give Pakistan more access to a broader regional market. A World Bank report released in December said that the Pakistan-India trade, currently standing around $2 billion, is much below its full potential.

According to the World Bank, it could be as high as $31 billion. The author of the document, Sanjay Kathuria, told the media that trust promotes trade and trade fosters trust, interdependency and constituencies for peace. The World Bank official said that in this context, the opening of the Kartarpur corridor by the governments of India and Pakistan would help in minimising the trust deficit.