KARTARPUR: THE CONTEXT OF A CORRIDOR
The progress reported in talks between India and Pakistan—on a corridor to enable Sikh pilgrims to travel directly to the Kartarpur Saheb gurudwara in Pakistan—merits a pause longer than one normally reserved for a confidence-building measure. For some years now, there has been a standing demand for easy access for pilgrims. Yet, that such a development would generate so much traction might have surprised even the most committed of activists.
The foundation stones of the corridor were laid in November 2018, by the vice president of India and the prime minister of Pakistan, on their respective sides. Last month, in a response to a congratulatory letter from PM Imran Khan after the general election results, PM Modi had called for early operationalisation of the corridor. Meetings between the two sides report incremental progress on a mass of details regarding documentation, pilgrim numbers, etc.—the stated aim is for pilgrims to be able to visit Kartarpur Saheb by November 2019, for the 550th birth anniversary of Guru Nanak.
Is any of this new? For decades, during periods of an upswing in ties, a staple has been the ‘promotion of people-to-people contacts’. Relaxing visa requirements, recognising that families divided by the border need frequent contact, improving travel infrastructure and addressing the demand from the devout to make crossborder pilgrimages has thus been on bilateral agendas from the early 1950s up to the Composite Dialogue and its different manifestations in this century. Major political initiatives have also, on occasion, coincided with breakthrough decisions on improving people-to-people contact. In 1977, when diplomatic ties were resumed after the 1971 war, the DelhiLahore train service—suspended since 1965—was resumed. PM Vajpayee’s famous ‘Bus Yatra’ to Lahore in 1999 was intertwined with the start of the Delhi-Lahore bus service. In 2006—in the early years of the Composite Dialogue—the resumption of the Khokhrapar-Munabao train across the Sindh-Rajasthan border, closed since the 1965 war, was a major step forward. There were, alongside, major relaxations for visits to shrines. A bus service from Amritsar directly to the Nankana Saheb gurudwara highlighted the recognition that pilgrims had specific requirements and governments had to address them. The crown jewel in these breakthroughs
was the bus service between Srinagar and Muzaffarabad and, later, between Poonch and Rawalakot. That these meant cross-LoC movement underlined the flexibility that the diplomatic toolkit possesses.
So is the Kartarpur corridor only one more link in this long chain? It would appear so, but there is one important difference. Most of these landmark decisions have taken place in the context of an upswing in Indo-Pak bilateral relations. The Kartarpur corridor negotiation is unusual in that it has coincided with a severe downswing in relations—a bad situation on the LoC with regular ceasefire violations, Pulwama, Balakot, etc. Internal developments in Pakistan have also not suggested any systemic effort to root out extremist groups, and there have been persistent concerns in India that the corridor could provide Pakistani agencies a route to instigate Sikh extremists and terrorism in some manner. In brief, the Kartarpur negotiation is moving toward fruition even without a visible supportive political environment or bilateral process. This is certainly unusual.
What does this say about cross-border relations and India’s Pakistan policy? Firstly, Indo-Pak relations rarely follow a linear path. Old fissures remain but do not prevent new ideas from emerging, and these new ideas, on occasion, reflect new structural realities. Secondly, diplomacy and foreign policy require flexibility, and that means keeping options open. As Bismarck once said, “one cannot play chess if 16 of the 64 squares are forbidden from the very beginning.”
Flexibility also bestows many advantages, especially when it comes to the international community. Many recent developments, including the Financial Action Task Force’s scrutiny of Pakistan and the steps against Hafiz Saeed, are not unrelated to this, even if there are additional proximate causes. We also have an obvious illustration in the ICJ verdict on Kulbhushan Jadhav. The government’s willingness to look beyond our traditional position of not bringing multilateral institutions into India-Pakistan issues created possibilities, and a measured flexibility on this long-held principle enabled doors to be opened where they were otherwise closed shut. ■
The author is a retired diplomat and currently director general of the Indian Council of World Affairs. Views are personal