The Kartarpur corridor between Pakistan and India is finally set to open. Last week, in impressive ceremonies, both sides laid the foundation stones of this corridor on their sides of the border.
It took more than seven decades for both countries to bridge this distance of four kilometres, one that will allow Sikh faithfuls greater religious freedom. The move is being slated as an ice-breaker in Pak-India ties that have remained frozen for the past several years. It has generated some hope that the almost decade-long suspension of composite dialogue between the two neighbours could be restarted. India thinks differently.
The corridor would help Sikh pilgrims to visit the Kartarpur Gurdwara which is the resting place of Baba Guru Nanak, founder of Sikhism.
Situated in lush green fields close to the village Kothey Pind, this glorious white triple-storey structure is only four kilometres away from the border. Sikh history narrates that Baba Guru Nanak spent the last 18 years of his life in this village. Outside the gurdwara is a well that is said to have been used by Guru Nanak to irrigate his fields.
Guru Nanak died in 1539. The gurdwara, with very few inhabitants around, is built in his memory. The earlier gurdwara eroded with the expansion of the Ravi with the passage of time. Later, in the early 1920s, Maharaja of Patiala Bhupinder Singh Bahadur constructed the currently standing gurdwara. Since the partition, Evacuee Trust Property Board of Pakistan has been maintaining the place. A bridge connecting the gurdwara with the other side of the border was destroyed during Pak-India wars in 1965 and later in 1971.
In the year 2000, Pakistani authorities allowed Sikh pilgrims to visit the place for the first time, for which they came through the Wagah border, covering a distance of almost 120 kilometres. A large number of Sikh people on the Indian side still see this historic and sacred place with a telescope installed at a high elevation on the other side of the border. This year the Indian government announced the placement of a high-powered lens for this purpose.
Guru Nanak’s birth and resting places are both on the Pakistani side of the Punjab: Nankana Sahib where he was born and Kartarpur where he spent the last two decades of his life and where the Sikh religion was born. Every year thousands of Sikh pilgrims visit these sites.
Though the opening of the Kartarpur corridor was a longstanding demand of the Indian Sikh community, it recently made headlines at the swearing-in ceremony of Prime Minister, Imran Khan where Chief of Army Staff Qamar Javed Bajwa assured the visiting minister of Indian Punjab Navjot Singh Sidhu that Pakistan planned to open the Kartarpur corridor for Sikh pilgrims on the 550th birth anniversary of Baba Guru Nanak next year. Later, Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry reiterated that Pakistan had expressed the desire to do so.
This came as big news for around 12 million followers of Sikhism across the world. Following this development, Indian High Commissioner to Islamabad Ajay Basariya also visited the Kartarpur Gurdwara. “We hope to bring this longstanding proposal to fruition with focused follow-up and coordination with the Pakistan side. This corridor will have a special appeal and significance for devotees as we celebrate 550 years of Guru Nanak’s birth next year,” the Indian envoy told his side of the media after visiting Narowal.
Prime Minister Imran Khan, while addressing the groundbreaking ceremony of Kartarpur corridor on November 28, said, “Both sides made mistakes in the past but we should lay off this chain of the past and come out of this blame game now and move forward.”
Urging India to learn from the past and presenting Franco-German relations as an example, Khan said, “Today, the Pakistani political leadership and military leadership are on same page and they want a civilised relationship with India.” He said Pakisan wants to enhance ties and improve trade for mutual benefit. “We don’t want a relation of one step forward and two steps back. If India moves one step forward, we will take two steps,” PM Khan said, throwing the ball in the court of neighbouring India.
Pakistan has sent a message of peace and stability to India around the same time when it had recently blamed Indian intelligence agency RAW for supporting terrorists who made a failed attempt to attack the Chinese consulate in Karachi on November 24. The ceremony took place only two days after the 10th anniversary of the Mumbai attacks in India, for which it blames Pakistan.
“It is a great goodwill gesture from Pakistan towards India. Now it is up to India how it responds to this step in the near future,” senior journalist Hamid Mir says, “Also, this step might have an impact on the internal politics of India, particularly in Punjab where the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party may lose.”
On the other side India is still giving a cold shoulder to this development, saying it should not be considered a precursor to anything. India wants Pakistan to first eliminate ‘terrorism’ from its soil.
India had refused to meet Pakistan at the foreign minister level during the United Nation’s General Assembly session in New York last September.
However, the Indian authorities and journalists who attended the ceremony on the Pakistan side termed it a positive step towards peace and people-to-people contact and a great goodwill gesture from the new Pakistani government. However, they have little hope of a good beginning from India at this time.
“This is such a beautiful message and became possible with the pressure of the public on both sides,” Jyoti Malhotra, senior Indian journalist says, adding, “Only public pressure can force political representatives to open such a window and make inroads for peace and stability.”
Malhotra says if political leaderships ignore such pressures they would have to face consequences in the elections. She thinks that though this step may not bridge the trust deficit between the two countries, at least it indicates that leaders and governments from both sides can sit together and talk about disputes and their possible solutions. “We should not avoid talks, and continue to create opportunities for the well-being of people on both sides. There can be more such measures but we should not hope for broader talks because of upcoming elections in India.”
The Kartarpur corridor is expected to open by next November but whether this will translate into opening opportunities for peace and dialogue with India or become an initiative to think of mutual benefits and trade remains a question. Further modalities of this corridor like whether it would be a visa-free entry, a closed entry or open entry beyond gurdwara and whether it would benefit non-Sikh people from both sides, is also subject to the plan. But what is certain is that this step by Pakistan will create goodwill and peace and make clear its intention of achieving stability with its arch rival.