KAR­TARPUR: THE CON­TEXT OF A COR­RI­DOR

India Today - - UPFRONT - TCA RAGHAVAN

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

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