Corridor of hope: Kartarpur
The announcement by Pakistan and India of plans to operationalise a visa-free corridor between Dera Baba Nanak in Indian Punjab and Kartarpur Sahib in Pakistan's Punjab is a reply a longstanding plea of Sikh pilgrims.
The demand for opening of this corridor had gathered pace in 1995, when Pakistan renovated the Kartarpur gurdwara, situated on the site on the bank of the Ravi where the founder of Sikhism, Guru Nanak, spent his last 18 years. Leaders from both sides, including then Prime Ministers Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Benazir Bhutto, had pushed for it. In their effort to facilitate travel by Sikhs to important shrines on both sides of the border, they were also alert to the potential of such a move to heal ties amongst their people, and promote dialogue between the two governments.
Given its easy logistics, the 4-KM-long Kartarpur corridor is a low-hanging fruit as a meaningful confidence-building measure. The announcement now is particularly timely, with the 550th birth anniversary of Guru Nanak falling in November 2019. The initiative can also become a template for cross-border exchanges based on faith, which could provide a balm for many communities such as Kashmiri Pandits, who have long asked for access to visit the Sharda Peeth in the Neelum Valley in Kashmir; Sufis in Pakistan who wish to visit the dargah of Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti in Ajmer, Rajasthan; and Sikhs in India and Pakistan wanting to visit important shrines on both sides of the border. Similarly there are many Hindus who want to visits Katas Raj Temple in Jehlum.
Much will depend on how quickly India and Pakistan act on their commitment, once President Ram Nath Kovind lays the foundation stone at the corridor's India end on November 26, and Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan does so at the other end on November 28. Even more will depend on how the two governments manage their relationship in a way that avoids making pilgrims a pawn in bilateral tensions.
Recently, there was an ugly and unnecessary controversy when Pakistan Army Chief Qamar Javed Bajwa revived the Kartarpur proposal in a conversation with Navjot Singh Sidhu, a Minister in the Congress government in Punjab, at Mr. Khan's swearing-in ceremony in August. This had set back bilateral ties, threatening progress on the project proposal. Going forward, it is important that issues related to the corridor are managed in a non-political manner and details left to diplomats and officials to sort out - for instance, the issue of Indian consular access to pilgrims, which flared up on Friday. Given the bilateral freeze, the Kartarpur project will compel India and Pakistan to engage in a positive and purposeful manner, at a time when few other avenues for engagement exist.
It is a reminder that dialogue and search for areas of concord are the only way forward for both countries. It is also important that both countries be vigil to any miscreant attack on either side which can derail the entire imitative in no time. So now both countries should be careful that not terror incident may hijack the friendly environment.