India and Pakistan inaugurated this week the building of the Kartarpur corridor to provide-visa free access to Indian pilgrims to the most revered Gurudwara Darbar Sahib, Kartarpur in Pakistan. A long-pending issue on the India-Pakistan bilateral agenda, Pakistani prime minister Imran Khan took up the corridor proposal as his first big initiative towards improving ties with India.
A corridor linking Dera Baba Nanak in Punjab’s Gurdaspur district to Kartarpur Sahib in Pakistan’s Narowal district has been a fervent demand of the Sikh community. The 16th century shrine is deeply revered as the last resting place of the founder of the Sikh faith, Guru Nanak.
The shrine, which is barely 4 kms from the India-Pakistan border can be viewed from the Indian side through a powerful telescope on a fine day. Groups of Sikhs gather at the border to say their prayers.
The NDA government has been wary of Imran Khan’s overtures ever since he assumed office as it looks for signs of sincerity of purpose in reining in the terrorist activities from across the border. Pakistan has been under international pressure, especially from Washington to take action against terrorists operating from its territory as well as to improve relations with India. A Pakistani proposal for a meeting between the two foreign ministers in New York during the UN session was first agreed to by New Delhi and then abruptly rejected within a day.
The Kartarpur proposal made by the Pakistani army chief, Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa took the NDA government by surprise and its initial reaction was ham-handed. As the Pakistani government announced plans for a ground-breaking ceremony for the corridor, the government held a hastily organised digital event at Dera Baba Nanak.
The Modi government, the ruling BJP party and the Congress party are now in a tussle to claim credit for the opening of the route, though there were nay sayers in both parties. The Congress party has tied itself in knots over the Kartarpur opening, with Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh objecting to Navjot Singh Sidhu hugging the Pakistani Army chief during his visit to Lahore for the inauguration of his old cricketing comrade, Imran Khan as Prime Minister of Pakistan.
Amarinder Singh had objected to the bonhomie on display between his ministerial colleague and the Pakistani General at a time when soldiers were being killed in the border areas by Pakistan bullets.
External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj declined the Pakistani government’s invitation for the ceremony citing prior engagements and the state elections in India. Two junior ministers, Hardeep Puri and Harsimrat Kaur were deputed to attend the ground breaking ceremony. For Akali Dal’s Harsimrat Kaur, it was an opportunity to retrieve ground after her unseemly spat with Sidhu over his advocacy of the Kartarpur issue. In the attempt to claim credit for the opening of the Kartarpur route, the government did not include the voluble Sidhu in the official delegation, but an undeterred Sidhu traveled to Lahore in his personal capacity.
A section of hardline opinion holds that the Kartarpur route would provide access to Punjab for Khalistani activists. According to the Punjab state government, attempts are being made to revive pro-Khalistan sentiments by forces in Pakistan, pointing to a recent grenade attack in the state. Similar sentiments were expressed in 2008 over the opening of trade routes in Kashmir.
In 2008, India and Pakistan took a major step after a period of high acrimony and heavy firing across the Line of Control; they opened a trade route across the LoC that connected Srinagar with Muzaffarabad. Traders from both sides began the weekly barter trade in October 2008, exchanging Indian fruit, nuts and honey with Pakistani rice and rock salt. The opening of the trade route which took place under the new government headed by President Asif Zardari, was deemed a important initiative for building trust between the two neighbours. It followed the starting of a bus service along the same route in 2005, and was initiated despite the warnings that it would be an aid for militant activity.
Later another route was opened for trade between Poonch and Rawalakot. And in 2017, the state government wrote to the Union Home Ministry to consider opening an additional seven trade routes at Jammu-Sialkot, Chhamb-Jourian-Mirpur, Gurez-Gilgit, Jhanger-Mirpur, Turtuk-Khapulu, Kargil-Skardu and Titwal-Chilhan.
Sidhu has called the Kartarpur route a “passage of infinite possibilities”. But India and Pakistan have had several such moments, from Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s Lahore bus ride to Modi’s drop-in
visit to Lahore that have not had a long lasting effect. However, the small steps taken by the two sides to facilitate trade or pilgrimage have helped to restore old connections. Just as the bus and trade route re-connected people in Kashmir, the Kartarpur corridor would serve as a bridge for the people of Punjab.