Pakistan’s decision to open and construct a direct corridor from the Indian border to the Kartarpur Sahib Sikh shrine in Pakistan is a significant event. How did it come about? What is its religious significance? What can it lead to in the often tense relations between these two nuclear armed nations?

The Gurdwara was built to commemorate the site where Guru Nanak, founder of Sikhism, settled after his missionary work. He assembled a Sikh community there, and lived for 18 years until his death in 1539. It is 4 km from and within sight of the border; and the Sikh community has long demanded they be able to walk to this major shrine directly from Dera Baba Nanak in India rather than through the Wagah border crossing.

There was neither a positive response from the Pakistan government nor any request from the Indian government, due to similar security concerns. When Imran Khan became Prime Minister this summer, in his inauguration speech he called for better relations with India: stating that if India took one step forward Pakistan would reciprocate with one and a half. He wrote to Prime Minister Narendra Modi with a roadmap for discussing all disputes and calling for talks. A meeting between the two Foreign Ministers was set until India pulled back cancelling it.

However at the PM’s inauguration his cricketing friend turned politician Navjot Singh Sidhu was assured both by Imran Khan and Pakistan’s Army Chief that Pakistan would open the Kartarpur corridor and complete construction by Guru Nanak’s 550th birth anniversary next year. Sidhu was criticised by some but his tidings were highly appreciated in East Punjab.

The Indian government was in a quandary, displeased with this development but unwilling to alienate Sikh sentiment. Finally it accepted the proposal; announcing it would construct the road on its side, and send two ministers to the groundbreaking ceremony by PM Imran Khan on Pakistan’s side. The East Punjab Government invited the speaker of Pakistan’s Punjab Assembly to its inauguration ceremony.

For long India, not Pakistan pushed people to people contacts. But in the last formal talks five years ago it was Pakistan that called for more people to people contacts.

The potential for religious visits is huge . Under the 1974 bilateral Protocol, group visas can be granted to 27 religious shrines in India and 37 in Pakistan. The list can be added to by mutual consent. Most visits take place on specific religious festivals or other ceremonies, and cover more than one shrine. The reality is that for logistic, security, and other reasons - including the political climate - there are informal caps on the visas accorded. However many pilgrims dearly want year round access.

The Kartarpur opening was a bold and wise move by Pakistan, with all stakeholders onboard and aware there would be criticism of ignoring the Kashmir overhang. But as the Pakistani Foreign Minister said in Parliament both countries need a more humane approach, and encouraging that humane approach in Kashmir, the main dispute between the two countries, is also a priority. Agreements to permit families crossing over and for cross line of control trade, are in place but restrictively applied and need to be liberalised. So far in the past 13 years when cross LOC movement of Kashmiris and trade was opened up some 39,000 have crossed over in both directions, some 25,000 from Pakistan and about 15,000 from IOK. Conversely in the same period the in the overall 743,000 volume of goods, the balance of trade, which is duty free ,is about 283,000 tons from AJK and about 461,000 tons from IOK. Much more can be done to facilitate trade as well.

Talks between Pakistan and India on logistic, visa or permits and other details of the Kartarpur corridor now have to take place, a change from the past five years of no talks despite Pakistan’s reiterated proposals. If relations improve there will a similar desire for one day visas to visit Lahore and Amritsar.

The overall significance of this development is twofold. East Punjab with the Sikhs’ agrarian orientation has missed out on industrialisation elsewhere, and being a potential conflict zone it is also investment shy. Thirty years ago it was the granary of India but comparative economic indicators have dropped. It would thus benefit from better India-Pakistan relations. And apart from the Sikh emotional attachment to most of their shrines now in Pakistan, culturally - with spoken Punjabi and the great Punjabi poets - there is a foundation for shared inter-Punjab contacts to foster understanding on both sides.

This was very apparent in the ground breaking of the corridor ceremony yesterday on Wednesday. The Prime Minister reiterated his offer to reciprocate one step forward by India by one and a half. He asked why the two countries could not resolve their Kashmir dispute and why if Germany and France could live together as friends why not India and Pakistan?Nanjot Singh Sidhu hailed the opening ,stated that both governments should move forward. Indian Union Cabinet Minister Harsimrat Kaur Badal stated that this Kartarpur initiative could become the basis for a new start between Pakistan and India.

On the national level there are hard truths however difficult they are to accept. India may become more economically and militarily powerful, but expecting Pakistan to be cowed down would be a mistake. Rather it would lead to more instability in South Asia.

Both countries face similar problems: environmental vulnerability, water scarcity, inequitable income distribution, high unemployment levels, unplanned urbanisation and development distortions due to defence threat perceptions. For India despite China’s size and growing influence, it is of much less real concern than Pakistan. To adequately address the needs of their people both countries require stability in their relationship. PM Modi appears to be aware of that and has on occasion reached out to Pakistan, and he is always capable of springing a surprise as his impromptu visit to Lahore showed. But more realistically his hands are tied by the dynamics of his party till the national elections are over next April.

It is natural that there should be certain euphoria in Pakistan at this development. The road to better relations will be long and hard, making demands on both sides. Nonetheless one hopes the historic Kartarpur opening is a step on that road towards peace.

 

Ambassador Tariq Osman Hyder led Pakistan’s side in Nuclear and Conventional CBM negotiations

with India 2004-7.

 ambassador.tariqosmanhyder@gmail.com