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EFSAS Commentary

Kartarpur corridor raises hopes of India-Pakistan thaw, but Terrorism still remains the primary issue


The decision to open the Kartarpur corridor taken by India and Pakistan last week represents a welcome break from the monotony and the overload of mistrust, discord, angst and violence that have characterized relations between the two countries in the last few years. The decision will facilitate the millions of followers of the Sikh faith in India to visit one of Sikhism’s holiest sites, the Gurdwara Darbar Sahib Kartarpur, in Pakistan, without having to go through the onerous and expensive process of obtaining a visa or taking a long circuitous route to get there, obstacles that the average Sikh found well-nigh insurmountable. It is also a rare example of the two arch enemies moving beyond their respective hard-held positions to arrive at an agreement on an issue of bilateral significance, one that kindled some hope of a wider and deeper thaw. That hope, unrealistic to begin with given Pakistan’s long history of putting spokes in the wheel of earlier promising peace initiatives, was further quelled by Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi’s imprudent shocker on 29 November, just a day after Prime Minister Imran Khan laid the foundation stone to the corridor. Qureshi suggested that Pakistan’s intention had been to use the corridor to trick India into abandoning its publicly articulated disinterest in talking to Pakistan till it ceased promoting terrorism directed against India. 

The Darbar Sahib Gurdwara is of immense importance to the Sikh faith as the founder of the religion, Guru Nanak, who lived in Kartarpur for 18 years prior to his passing away there in 1539, had built it. This holy site is only three kilometers from the India-Pakistan border, on the Indian side of which another historically important Sikh Gurdwara, the Dera Baba Nanak, is located. Opening of a corridor between these religious sites has been a long-standing demand of the Sikh community in India, and India’s then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee had first proposed to the Pakistani leadership during his historic visit to Lahore in 1999 that it be set up. This, as also several subsequent proposals to Pakistan on the issue, had not received the attention that they merited. 

Intriguingly, the issue re-emerged when Pakistan Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa without any prompting told Navjot Singh Sidhu, an Indian cricketer-turned-politician friend of Imran Khan, during the latter’s oath-taking ceremony earlier this year, that when the Sikh community celebrates the 550th birthday of Guru Nanak in November 2019, “we'll open the Kartarpur-Sahib Corridor". The fact that it was Bajwa, rather than Imran Khan, that informed Sidhu of Pakistan’s intention reaffirmed who in the country held the keys to the relationship with India. This was ratified by Pakistan’s Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry who in a recent interview said that the Pakistan Government wanted to “formalize the informal proposal the Pakistan army chief made to Sidhu"

After the mandatory exchanges between the foreign offices of the two countries, the Indian Cabinet on 22 November, approved the building and development of the Kartarpur corridor from Dera Baba Nanak in its Gurdaspur district to the international border with Pakistan. Hours later, Pakistan announced that Prime Minister Imran Khan would perform the ground-breaking of the proposed corridor on the Pakistan side on 28 November. India deputed its two Sikh members of the Cabinet, Minister for Food Processing Industries Harsimrat Kaur Badal and Minister of State for Housing and Urban Affairs Hardeep Singh Puri, to attend the Pakistani event. 

Qureshi initially welcomed India’s decision to send Union ministers to the event. After the event, however, he said that Imran Khan had bowled a "googly" to ensure the Indian Government's presence at the groundbreaking ceremony. This remark received a sharp rebuke from India and served to nullify any gain that Pakistan may have wished for by agreeing to the corridor. India’s External Affairs Minister (EAM) Sushma Swaraj reacted on twitter: "Mr. Foreign Minister of Pakistan - Your 'googly' remarks in a dramatic manner has exposed none but YOU. This shows that you have no respect for Sikh sentiments. You only play googlies"

Harsimrat Kaur Badal in a tweet exhorted Imran Khan to act against Qureshi, "I urge Pakistan PM @ImranKhanPTI to take action against his minister for hurting sentiments of Sikhs and peace efforts by equating attendance at a function at Sri Kartarpur Sahib with trapping India by bowling a googly. Nothing can be more disgusting than this. Your minister's words make fun of this occasion and link it to your evil designs. As prime minister, you need to control your ministers and the army. Otherwise, as people across the world have lost faith in Pakistan, they will lose that faith even in the prime minister of Pakistan". She also had a strong rebuke for Qureshi, "Going to Sri Kartarpur Sahib was a matter of faith for me. Indulging in one-upmanship on this sacred issue is uncalled for. No one was bowled over by any 'googly'. PM Modi and ministers have only respected sentiments of Sikhs by authoring and participating in this noble initiative. If you think you will be able to fulfill your evil designs by misusing our religion, you are mistaken. We are Guru Gobind Singh's children who know how to protect our country. My suggestion to you is that you do not use religion to fulfill your evil intentions. You should realize that its results would be bad and history is witness to it"

Her words seemed to have had the desired effect. Imran Khan, who as some of his civilian predecessors had done in their initial periods in power till they were rudely jarred awake by the military establishment, has since his post-election victory speech on 25 July, been loud and persistent in his profession of peace with neighbouring India and Afghanistan. Acutely aware that self-confessed trickery and deceit in furtherance of foreign policy objectives only serve to detract from the credibility and trust in the side making such claims, and with Pakistan’s standing on these counts being dismal in the first place, Khan chose to contradict his foreign minister. Asked on 3 December to comment on Qureshi’s statement, Khan said that “the Kartarpur corridor opening was not a googly or a double game but a straightforward decision". The damage, however, had already been done. 

Khan has repeatedly treaded down the dangerous path in Pakistan of claiming that the government and the military establishment were on the same page. The claim in itself is not surprising given the wide acceptance within Pakistan, as also outside it, that Khan has been propped up by the establishment and owes his premiership to it. The obvious follow up question that arises, however, is which page are they on? 

Is it the peace-seeking, anti-war, anti-terror and dialogue-oriented page that Khan is, at least verbally, espousing, or the one that thrives on proxy wars through carefully nurtured terrorists, negates all meaningful efforts towards peace by engineering disruptive incidents such as the Kargil war, the Mumbai terrorist attacks, the Pathankot and Uri attacks, and most recently the Amritsar carnage? Because these are extremely divergent narratives that cannot be weaved into one common page. If Khan is indeed on the former page and persists with it for any length of time in the hope that the establishment will play ball, history indicates that he is walking on very thin ice. He then also cannot hide behind statements such as his government having inherited the Hafiz Saeed issue, for which he should not be held responsible. It was his government that recently acted strongly and effectively against another extremist outfit that it had inherited, the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), for challenging the writ of the Pakistani State. What then, if not fear of the establishment’s ire, prevents Khan from similarly neutralizing Hafiz Saeed’s Lashkar-e-Taibah (LeT), which is one of the establishment’s primary and zealously protected terrorist instruments for attacking India? On the other hand, if the latter page is the common one, Khan would do well to stop harping on peace and accept his place in the back-rows of decision-making. 

The international isolation and near-pariah status that Pakistan finds itself consigned to appears to be weighing heavy upon it, as is the desperate state of its economy. The pressure on it to clamp down on the terrorist infrastructure that it created and nurtured over the decades has become perceptibly sharper under the Trump administration. The establishment and the country's elite have been feeling the heat as the United States and other western nations steadily escalate their demand for action against terrorist groups based in Pakistan. 

The agreement to construct the Kartarpur corridor in deference to the long-pending demand of Sikh pilgrims is laudable. Fawad Hussain has hailed the agreement to facilitate the Kartarpur passage as a victory of the peace lobby in both countries. However, Pakistan’s disinclination to eschew terrorism as a tool while simultaneously yearning for a dialogue with India is the primary dampener for those who view the Kartarpur corridor as a harbinger of amicable bilateral ties between the two countries. 

From India’s perspective, it has displayed considerable courage in agreeing to the corridor at a juncture when the Pakistani establishment appears to have redoubled its efforts at re-igniting the Khalistani insurgency in Punjab, the state in India in which the corridor will be constructed. The decision comes in the wake of a succession of Khalistani terrorist attacks in Punjab, as well as increasing global efforts at Khalistani radicalization, both backed by the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) of Pakistan. The fear of the ISI using the direct daily access to the large number of Sikh pilgrims that it would gain through the corridor for fueling a pro-Khalistan campaign also lurks. 

Sushma Swaraj articulated India’s position on the Kartarpur corridor and what it implied for prospects of resumption of the bilateral dialogue with Pakistan by saying that “India has been asking for that for 20 years and for the first time Pakistan responded positively to this. But that does not mean bilateral dialogue will begin only on this. Terror and talks don’t go together. The moment Pakistan stops terrorist activities in India, a dialogue can start but the dialogue cannot start only with the Kartarpur corridor”

Hardeep Singh Puri put the significance of the Kartarpur corridor in perspective when he described it as a "corridor of hope and goodwill" that, however, could not be insulated from ground realities. "The fact of the matter is that the ground reality is characterized by one State using terror as an instrument of policy against a neighbouring State. Now of what use would the corridor be if these kinds of acts of terrorism or elements which are committed to creating trouble continue to do so. All I have to say is, let us build on this and its goodwill on both sides. If you can see reduction or curtailment of terror, which is unleashed on us all the time, yes then it could become a corridor of hope".