Will the Kartarpur Corridor survive India-Pakistan hostilities?

Will the Kartarpur Corridor survive India-Pakistan hostilities?

The happiness could be overpowered by toxicity unless India-Pakistan relations improve

Over the past few days, thousands of pilgrims have visited the Kartarpur shrine through the special corridor built between India and Pakistan, which brought to reality a long-cherished dream of many Sikhs. After the celebration following the inauguration of the Kartarpur Corridor on November 9, many in the diplomatic and security establishment have expressed reservations about the project. In a conversation moderated by Suhasini Haidar, former diplomat Ambassador K.C. Singh and director of Institute for Conflict Management Ajai Sahni discuss the potential and the pitfalls of the India-Pakistan initiative. Edited excerpts:

The Kartarpur Corridor is a reality after seven decades. With Prime Ministers Narendra Modi and Imran Khan comparing the corridor to the Berlin Wall coming down, what are your thoughts?

K.C. Singh: This was always welcome — not just the Kartarpur Corridor, but also perhaps the idea that other religious corridors may be built between the two countries. I think there may not be too many other religious spots like this, just four kilometres from the border.

But let’s not conflate two things: the demand for the Kartarpur Corridor with India-Pakistan relations. If India-Pakistan relations were on a positive trajectory, Kartarpur would have been a confidence-building measure. Incidentally, this was never a part of the India-Pakistan comprehensive dialogue structure. Now if it was a confidence-building measure, you could see it helping the relationship further. But since the relationship is sour, and made worse by the August 5th decision on Article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir, you are dealing with two separate processes: a relationship going south and this kind of an initiative sticking out like a sore thumb.

Ajai Sahni: I would agree, and add something. I believe both sides have entered into this Kartarpur arrangement for divergent, conflicting, and partisan political and domestic reasons. This is not a decision in good faith, to my mind. In 2017, a parliamentary committee had mulled over this idea, consulted widely with security and intelligence agencies, and come to the conclusion that however desirable, the Kartarpur Corridor was not advisable due to the situation on the ground. This was completely ignored.

Now, when you enter initiatives with the wrong motives, you can be fairly certain that no Berlin Walls are going to come down. This is not about India-Pakistan relations, but about Pakistan’s leadership trying to address its own strategic, tactical objectives, and about our ruling party trying to secure some political advantages. When negotiations are in bad faith, outcomes cannot be positive.

Given that there were no other bilateral talks, isn’t the fact that the Kartarpur talks went on for an entire year a miracle of sorts?

KC: Well, I think the question arises as to why Pakistan has gone ahead with the initiative despite the Balakot strikes, the Pakistan-bashing rhetoric during the elections this year, as well as dilution of Article 370.

In the past year, the Kartarpur Corridor seems to have been pushed by Pakistan’s military, with General Qamar Javed Bajwa making the first move when he offered the project. Government officials have also said that this project has been completed with “military precision”. Do you think Kartarpur is a military project for Pakistan?

AS: Absolutely. The basic objective has been to give a fillip to the Khalistan [separatist] project. And this combines with efforts of the past 3-4 years of creating problems in Punjab through a terrorist proxy. It combines with the increasing rhetoric around Khalistan. We heard repeated statements from Pakistani Ministers that Khalistanis would be welcomed at Kartarpur. As far as the management of Kartarpur is concerned, it is completely in the purview of the Army and the Inter-Services Intelligence.

Is there an uptick in activity by these Khalistani groups?

AS: Marginally, yes. From what we have recorded, in the eight years preceding 2016, we saw no fatalities relating to activities from separatists in Punjab. Thereafter we have seen some. There is some limited uptick, but no major traction.

I want to put these suspicions that you refer to in some context. We have other religious pilgrimages between the two countries (Ajmer Sharif, Nankana Sahib, Hindu shrines, etc.) and a convention from the 1970s regulating them. So, why is Kartarpur different?

KC: First, the volumes are much smaller for those, and they are highly controlled. Lists are made in advance, and the Home Ministry and State governments run through them. Only a few thousand people go a few times a year.

AS: The real concern can be radicalisation, recruitment, and identification [by separatist groups]. If the volumes are substantial, as I am sure they will be eventually, they [the Pakistani establishment] will set up systems to expose these people to diaspora elements. The Khalistani leadership, still being given safe haven in Pakistan, will be used to identify individuals who are potential recruits and who could be mobilised for action or propaganda to support the broader Khalistani purpose.This is the slow attritional policy they would have imagined. Whether or not they are able to succeed is another matter.

If you can put aside the suspicions, how big a moment is the Kartarpur opening for the Sikh community and followers of Guru Nanak around the country?

KC: Kartarpur; Nankana Sahib, which is west of Lahore; and Damdama Sahib, which is between Islamabad and Peshawar are all important. There are many other gurdwaras in Pakistan, but these are the main ones. But at the same time I would say, let’s not hype it too much. It is great that it has been done, but India should now be smart about it and make a counter-proposal and say, please, let us exchange an enclave. We don’t want a corridor, and there is a natural barrier of the Ravi river which touches Kartarpur. We don’t know why Radcliffe drew the line south but took out this enclave at this point. So, like we did with Bangladesh, why can’t we exchange the enclaves of land with land here? Pakistan will immediately reject it because what they want is a constant pressure point. There is always the fear that the corridor will get linked to India-Pakistan relations. If relations are tense, they may tighten the flow of pilgrims, and even if they allow a normal flow here and the rest of the relationship is toxic, then you are allowing them to give the impression that Sikhs are favoured and creating a division with other Indians.

Are you saying that the government has allowed Pakistan to put issues of faith above national policy?

AS: Well, it is abundantly clear that they neglected issues relating to national security policy and the declared national policy on Pakistan. This [Kartarpur Corridor] contradicts what the practice was over the last 4-5 years. The diplomatic and political ecosystem towards Pakistan has been one of hostility and within that Kartarpur stands out not only as a positive exception but a contradiction.

Given all that, will the Kartarpur Corridor survive?

AS: I think it will be a perpetual hostage to a major terrorist event. And the moment something occurs, our political system will have to deal with the far greater disappointment of losing something we had gained as opposed to not having something the Sikh community desired. If Kartarpur is shut down now after having been opened up, the sense of loss will be far greater than not having access to Kartarpur for 72-73 years.

KC: Well, you saw the engagement and the message that Prime Minister Khan sent [with reference to Kashmir at the opening]. You also saw that the Indian Prime Minister could not go across, and asked Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh to carry offerings and pay obeisance on his behalf. So it cannot be seen in isolation to other problems. Those have become more toxic after the dilution of Article 370, and Mr. Khan said that, raising issues of human rights. So what can the corridor do by itself? It’s a happy occasion which will be overpowered by the toxicity unless we can find a way to move the whole relationship forward. It can be a beginning, but cautiously so, and won’t mean much unless the rest of the relationship goes forward.

Finally, many have said that Punjab bore the brunt of Partition. Can this engagement at least try and heal the wounds of the past?

KC: No, I think when Punjabis meet they always get along. They speak the same language, discuss the same culture, food is the same. The two Punjabs having better connectivity should be a natural outcome. After all, in the past, Punjab was land-locked but connected to Central Asia. During Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s time, Lahore was connected by the Indus river, the Sutlej, and had riverine ties with the region. After Partition, all of that was delinked. So [Indian] Punjab has become completely land-locked and looks at the rest of India for goods and services and markets. There is no [cross-border] trade left, and so Amritsar, which was on a major trading route to Central Asia, is now completely land-locked, and the same goes for Pakistan’s Punjab province too. They are losing their links to the booming economy of India, simply because of their fixation on Kashmir.

AS: We could always enumerate all the many advantages. There are economic and social advantages that would come from better relations between India and Pakistan. The difficulty is that politics always trumps economics. As long as you have this politics of hatred that is entrenched in Pakistan because of a certain religious doctrine, and that seems to be something that is increasingly being seeded in India as well, I don’t think one can imagine a very dramatic transformation or a very positive people-to-people relationship between the people of Punjab on this side of the border and people on the other side at present.

K.C. Singh is former Ambassador and a diplomat; Ajai Sahni is the executive director of the Institute for Conflict Management, which maintains the South Asia Terrorism Portal

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