By Iqbal Singh Sevea | OPINION |
On 28 November 2018, Imran Khan, the Prime Minister of Pakistan, inaugurated the construction of the Kartarpur Corridor. The Kartarpur Corridor is a border crossing that will connect two important Sikh historical Gurdwaras – Dera Baba Nanak Sahib in India and Kartarpur Sahib in Pakistan – and provide access for Sikh pilgrims from Indian Punjab to Pakistani Punjab. The Vice President of India, M. Venkaiah Naidu, had earlier laid the foundation stone for the Indian portion of the corridor on 26 November 2018.
The construction of the corridor has been widely hailed in both India and Pakistan for opening a new chapter in the relations between the two countries. Many believe that the goodwill generated by the corridor and the increased people to people contact it will generate could lead to better diplomatic relations between India and Pakistan. Navjot Singh Sidhu, a Minister in the Indian state of Punjab, welcomed the development as one that will “build bridges, burn animosity and will act like a soothing balm for two neighboring countries.” Imran Khan even suggested that the corridor could mark the first step toward greater economic ties between the two countries.
With the Partition of India in 1947, people living in the new states of India and Pakistan found themselves cut off from religious institutions that they revered. The Sikhs in Indian Punjab, in particular, were separated from key religious institutions. A number of their religious sites now fell in Pakistani Punjab. Amongst these is the Kartarpur Sahib gurdwara, which is built on the site where Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism, lived for 18 years. Such is the reverence for the site that Sikhs in India who visit Dera Baba Nanak, another site associated with Guru Nanak, which is about 2 km within the Indian side of the border, use binoculars to get a glimpse of and offer their respects to Kartarpur Sahib.
The idea of the Kartarpur Corridor has been in circulation for a number of decades. In 1999, the former Indian Prime Minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, called on his Pakistani counterpart to work together to develop a border crossing at Kartarpur. The idea came into the limelight again when Navjot Sidhu visited Pakistan to attend the inauguration of Imran Khan as the Prime Minister in August 2018. Upon returning to India, Sidhu declared that he had been assured by Khan and the chief of the Pakistani military, General Qamar Bajwa, that Pakistan would open the Kartarpur border in time for the 550th birth anniversary of Nanak in 2019.
The month of November has witnessed a flurry of activity on both sides of the border to inaugurate the corridor. India and Pakistan are not only claiming credit for taking the idea forward but also rushed to lay the foundation stone in their respective domains. Within India, the Congress Party, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Akali Dal are each jostling to claim credit for the construction of the corridor. All three parties have their eyes firmly set on the 2019 national elections. They each hope that an association with this initiative will bring them a windfall of Sikh votes. Although the Congress Party is in power in Punjab, the BJP which is in power at the center, and its ally the Akali Dal, have ensured that they are front and center of any event associated with the corridor. For instance, a leading figure from the Akali Dal, Harsimrat Kaur Badal, was sent to Pakistan to represent the Indian government at the groundbreaking ceremony.
For the new Imran Khan government in Pakistan, the opening of the corridor provides a good opportunity to illustrate that it has the political will to back up its rhetoric about developing better ties with India. The government is clearly interested in using religious diplomacy and religious tourism to normalize relations with India.
While both India and Pakistan are trying to claim credit for the initiative, the crucial modalities and technicalities that will govern (and restrict) travel across the corridor have yet to be worked out. These have the potential to limit any lasting impact that the corridor may have on improving relations between the two states. The devil, as they say, is in the details.
Both sides have spoken in terms of visa-free travel but have not spelt out what sort of permits would be required by those seeking to travel across the corridor. Security agencies on both sides of the border will no doubt demand that a strict regime of permits, regulation and monitoring be put in place. Sections within India are already highlighting the potential threat of terrorist infiltration.
An issue that is likely to pose a major stumbling block is whether India will be allowed to have consular access to the pilgrims. India has been clear that it expects its consular staff to be granted unrestricted access. This issue is linked to concerns over support from the Pakistani establishment for Sikh separatists demanding for an independent state of Khalistan. Pakistan’s leading intelligence agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), has been accused of supporting the Khalistani militants. There is a concern in India that Pakistan continues to support attempts by segments of the Sikh diaspora to revive the demand for Khalistan.
The decision to open the Kartarpur Corridor marks a step in the right direction by India and Pakistan. There have, however, been a number of similar attempts before. The Samjautha Express, a train service linking Delhi and Lahore, and Sada-e-Sarhad, a bus service connecting Delhi and Lahore, were past initiatives that were launched with similar hopes and fanfare as the Kartarpur Corridor. The future of the corridor and its potential impact on India-Pakistan relations is contingent upon whether the two states will be able to develop sustained channels through which to discuss, firstly, the modalities of religious travel, and, secondly, the expansion of such linkages to other sectors such as trade and commerce.
Even at this nascent stage, the Kartarpur Corridor is already being looked to as a model for the facilitation of further religious travel between India and Pakistan. In the wake of the groundbreaking ceremonies, Hindus in Jammu and Kashmir have called on the governments of India and Pakistan to develop a similar corridor to allow Hindu pilgrims to visit Sharda Peeth. Sharda Peeth is a Hindu temple dedicated to the goddess Sharda Devi, which now falls in the Pakistani side of the Line of Control in Kashmir.
Dr Iqbal Singh Sevea is the Associate Professor University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and Visiting Associate Professor at the Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore (NUS)
Pakistan PM Khan lays foundation stone for long-awaited Kartarpur corridor (Asia Samachar, 28 Nov 2018)
On Builiding Bridges (Asia Samachar, 5 Dec 2018)
International peace bridge connecting Kartarpur in Pakistan and Dera Baba Nanak in India (Asia Samachar, 21 Sept 2018)