Can the construction of an estimated five-kilometre religious corridor between India and Pakistan help tamp down some of the tensions between the two nuclear-armed neighbours?
This question is being asked after the Indian cabinet at its meeting chaired by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Thursday approved the building and development of a cross-border road connectivity between a village in Gurdaspur district in Punjab state of India to the international border with Pakistan in order to facilitate pilgrims from India to visit Gurdwara Darbar Sahib in Kartarpur on the banks of the Ravi river in Pakistan where Sikh religion founder Guru Nanak Devji spent the last eighteen years of his life. Soon after the cabinet decision, announced by Indian Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, chief minister of the office of the Indian state of Punjab chief minister Amarinder Singh announced that President Ram Nath Kovind and Singh would lay the foundation stone for construction of the Kartarpur corridor on November 26.
Across the border, Pakistan Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi said in a Twitter post that his country has conveyed to India that Islamabad would open the road connectivity to Kartarapur for celebrating the 550th birth anniversary of Guru Nanak. Qureshi also said Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan would do the ground-breaking ceremony on construction of the cross-border road on Pakistan side on November 28. Kartarpur in Pakistan is just about three kilometres from the border with India while the length of the border cross-border corridor on the Indian is nearly 2.5 km.
An Indian cabinet statement issued on Thursday termed as “significant” the decision of building and development of the Kartarpur corridor from Dera Baba Nanak in Gurdaspur district in Punjab state to the international border, in order to facilitate pilgrims from India to visit Gurdwara Darbar Sahib Kartarpur on the banks of the Ravi river, in Pakistan. India also hopes that the corridor would remain open throughout the year so that pilgrims are able to visit the holy shrine throughout the year and not just on special festivals and occasions.
Separately on Thursday, India’s External Affairs Ministry spokesman said that the Kartarpur corridor will be implemented as an integrated development project with government of India funding, to provide smooth and easy passage, with all the modern amenities and that government of India will put in place suitable facilities for smooth passage of pilgrims.” He also said the government of Pakistan will be urged to recognize the sentiments of the Sikh community and to develop a corridor with suitable facilities in their territory as well.
The moves in both India and Pakistan on the cross-border connectivity for religious purposes has been promptly welcomed by Bharatiya Janata Party President Amit Shah and his ally Shiromani Akali Dal chief Sukhbir Singh Badal. Shah said the Modi government had “continuously strived to enrich India’s rich religious diversity and this step further reinforces it.”
The decisions on the Kartarpur corridor came two months after ties between the two countries had nosedived to a new low following the abrupt cancellation of a meeting between the Foreign Ministers of India and Pakistan on the margins of the U N General Assembly in New York in September. It is being seen as a small step forward towards bringing down the tensions between the two neighbours. While India has been urging Pakistan to build and open the religious corridor for nearly two decades there had been no tangible progress beyond utterances. The Indian Congress party legislator Navjot Singh Sidhu, the former cricketer and now a cabinet minister in Punjab, had met Pakistan army chief Gen Qamar Ahmed Bajwa at the swearing-in ceremony of Prime Minister Imran Khan in September. On his return, Sidhu had quoted Bajwa as saying that Pakistan was planning to open the Kartarpur road corridor for the 550th birth anniversary of Guru Nanak.
Ironically, Sidhu’s attendance in Imran Khan’s swearing-in event and the photograph of his bear-hug of Bajwa, widely flashed by the Indian print and audio-visual media, had set off a huge controversy and drawn angry reactions from the BJP as well as Amarnder Singh, a senior Congress party leader, who had chided Sidhu for not sticking to protocol on a bilateral diplomatic issue. External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj had also ticked off Sidhu and Akali Dal parliamentarian and federal Indian minister Harsimrat Kaur Badal, wife of Sukhbir Singh Badal, had also attacked Sidhu’s Pakistan trip. The outcry brought out once again the extremely sensitive nature of India-Pakistan relations and the pitfalls therein.
However, Amarinder Singh had urged the Indian government to take up the Kartarpur corridor issue with Pakistan and a week later, the Punjab state legislative assembly unanimously passed a resolution for unhindered travel through the corridor.
It is tempting to conclude that the cross-border religious connectivity move can usher in the start of an end to a deep freeze in India-Pakistan ties. Caution is needed and there is no need to go over the board for two reasons. First, the differences and distrust between the two countries are too wide and deep to be judged by just one people-centric move. The history of people-centric confidence-building initiatives is far from encouraging and their longevity is highly susceptible to major terror attacks in India by Pakistan-based terrorists. Secondly, the cross-border religious route move comes just a few days after the grenade attack on the religious gathering of a Sikh sect near Amritsar, that borders Pakistan, last week. The attack was blamed by Amariner Singh on Pakistan and ISI which he said were trying to revive Sikh separatists militancy in Punjab, a state which had been wracked by such militancy in 1980s and was considered to have led to the assassination of the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi on October 31, 1984 .
There are already concerns in the Indian security establishment that Pakistan is trying to revive Sikh separatist movement in Punjab and is looking with suspicion at Pakistan’s promptly agreeing to the Kartarpur corridor as a way of warming up to Sikhs with the ulterior motive of fomenting separatism in the
Arunsabha Bhattacharya is a Delhi-based foreign policy researcher