A pilgrimage corridor and path ahead for India-Pakistan ties

Relations between India and Pakistan, it is often pointed out, are prone to fits and starts even at the best or worst of times. One more illustration of this was available on November 9 when Prime Ministers Narendra Modi and Imran Khan separately inaugurated a cross-border pilgrimage corridor at their respective ends across divided Punjab. The 4km corridor would link Dera Baba Nanak on the Indian side of Punjab to Kartarpur in Narowal district of Pakistan’s Punjab province facilitating the journey to a gurudwara where Guru Nanak spent the last 18 years of his life. The white-marbled gurudwara at Kartarpur on the bank of Ravi river is one of the most revered shrines not only of Sikhs but also of people belonging to other faiths.

According to Indian media reports from Kartarpur, a groundswell of emotions marked the opening of the corridor to the public when the first group of 500 Indian pilgrims crossed the border and visited the shrine. It was Modi who flagged off the journey of the pilgrims who included his predecessor Manmohan Singh, Indian Punjab states chief minister Amariner Singh and Modi’s ministerial colleague Harsimrat Kaur Badal and her husband Sukhbir Singh Badal. Sukhbir’s father Parkash Singh Badal, a former chief minister of Punjab, was also in it. No politician worth his or her name wanted to be left behind on such an occasion given how religion deeply influences politics in Punjab, more so when the Badals-led Akali Dal rules the state. On November 12, Pakistan, in a special gesture on the occasion of 550th birth anniversary of Guru Nanak, allowed visa-free travel by five thousand Indians to the Kartarpur shrine for the pilgrimage.

The presence of Manmohan Singh, Amarinder Singh and the Badal family members show both the political and religious significance of the Kartarpur corridor which not only fulfills a long-pending demand of Sikhs but also holds out the hope for a positive momentum in India-Pakistan ties clouded by mutual distrust and antagonism. That hope was highlighted by both Modi and Imran Khan in their speeches. In fact, Modi thanked Khan for extending cooperation to expedite the implementation of the corridor project on Pakistani side on time for the 550th birth anniversary of Guru Nanak and for understanding and respecting the sentiments of Indians. Two days before the opening of the corridor, Manmohan Singh had expressed the hope that the “Kartarpur model” may help in resolving future conflicts between India and Pakistan.    

The opening of the cross-border pilgrimage corridor and the visa-free travel for a day are confidence-building measures which come at a time when ties between the two South Asian nuclear-armed rivals have nosedived to a new low in the wake of a number of deadly terror attacks by Pakistan-based terror outfits in India in the last three years. But neither terror attacks in India nor confidence-building measures relating to connectivity, trade, cricket and people-to-people contactsa aimed at easing bilateral tensions are nothing new. One had seen quite a lot of it in the past—one following the other.  

But let us be realistic enough not to hype the importance of a cross-border pilgrimage corridor. It is quite possible that the corridor may be shut if there is a major terror attack in India. Many confidence-building steps in the past had met with the same fate. In fact, signs of underlying strains and the past were evident even before the inauguration of the Kartapur corridor and during the event. The corridor has heightened concerns in the Indian security establishment that Pakistan might use it to revive violent Sikh separatist movement that had roiled Punjab in 1980s leading to bloodshed. In fact, a few days before the inauguration of the corridor, Amarinder Singh had gone on record as saying that the Pakistan army has an “ulterior” motive in allowing the corridor and using it to foment militancy in Punjab. And he had a reason to say so. Pakistan has used photos of three Sikh separatist leaders including Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale in its official video on Kartarpur corridor.  

Some jarring notes at the time of inauguration of the corridor on the Pakistani side came from Imran Khan and his Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi both of whom took the opportunity to raise the Kashmir issue. No doubt, they did it keeping their domestic constituency in mind and try and fan separatism in Punjab. The Indian Prime Minister very subtly reminded both Khan and Qureshi of the consequences Pakistan faces in continuing with cross-border terror sponsorship. In his speech while inaugurating the corridor on the Indian side just a few kilometers away from the border with Pakistan, Modi addressed his Pakistan counterpart as Imran Khan Niazi, sending a reminder the fate Pakistani General A A K Niazi had met during the Bangladesh liberation war in December, 1971 when he had to surrender to the joint command of the Indian army and mukti joddhas. For Pakistanis, ‘Niazi’ brings back memories of the 1971 war defeat and the break-up of Pakistan leading to the emergence of independent Bangladesh. Shortly before Imran Khan assumed power last year, the Pakistan Prime Minister’s office had issued a circular stipulating that the word ‘Niazi’ should not be used in his name in any official communication.

Kartarpur corridor is a pilgrimage route. India-Pakistan hostilities and differences are too deep and expansive to be overcome by confidence-building measures particularly as long as Pakistan persists with its policy of using cross-border terrorism as an instrument of state policy. It may be a corridor of hope and it is not sufficient to show the way forward to durable thaw.

Pallab Bhattacharya is a journalist based in India