Amid the friction prevailing between South Asian neighbors India and Pakistan, the launching of the Kartarpur Corridor is nothing less than a paradigm shift for this region.
First proposed by India in 1999 when the then Prime Minister Vajpayee visited Lahore, this channel could not be built due to lack of trust between the two nations. After many years, the debate over opening Kartarpur re-started when cricketer turned politician Navjot Singh Sidhu attended the swearing in of his old friend Imran Khan as the Prime Minister of Pakistan.
At this occasion the Pakistani army chief General Bajwa told him that Pakistan was thinking of opening the corridor. Even though Sidhu faced a severe backlash for being “over friendly” in Pakistan once he went home, his visit has proved to be a catalyst in re-energizing Indo-Pak relations.
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Considering that both countries do not get along most of the time, the breakthrough is nothing less than a miracle. At a time when even the annual summit of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) is held up because of these two nations, such a major practical step towards normalizing ties is unexpected.
Practically though, such a sea-change is not possible without high-level back channel talks between India and Pakistan. And if that is the case, India-Pakistan ties are already on a positive new trajectory as the opening of this channel is no small feat. Ostensibly, once Pakistan took the lead and showed willingness to open the Kartarpur route, the Indian government complied due to several reasons.
If the Kartarpur channel is successfully completed, the opening of more corridors is possible and visa-free access to more shrines on both sides of the Indo-Pak border can be givenSabena Siddiqui
Elections around the corner
For starters, this was what India has been demanding since two decades. Secondly, with elections around the corner, the BJP government in New Delhi would like to cash in on the Sikh vote bank. Fulfilling a long-standing demand for visa-free access by the Sikh religious community, this new route facilitates their cross-border pilgrimages.
Located across the Ravi river flowing into Pakistan, the Kartarpur Sahib shrine is built at the spot where spiritual leader Guru Nanak passed away and special celebrations are taking place this year on his 550th birth anniversary.
Thirdly, both countries can benefit from trade links by land. Significantly, for the first time since the partition of the sub-continent, land access has been given to India inside Pakistan.
It can be termed the first turning point toward amicable relations in 70 years, India has wished for a land route via Pakistan since long as it would link it to Afghanistan and onward to Central Asia. Likewise, improved bilateral links can open new trade opportunities for Pakistan and help improve its economy.
If this thaw in relations continues, it holds infinite possibilities and signifies a geopolitical shift. Unfortunately, such ‘new beginnings’ in the past have yielded disappointing results as Indo-Pakistan relations follow a pattern of ‘highs and lows’. Whenever the bonhomie increases, prospects hit rock-bottom very fast.
If the Kartarpur channel is successfully completed, the opening of more corridors is possible and visa-free access to more shrines on both sides of the Indo-Pak border can be given. Up till now, pilgrimages between both countries came under the ambit of the 1974 Protocol on Visits to Religious Shrines which makes visas compulsory.
‘Corridor of peace’
Performing the ground -breaking ceremony, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan has called it the ‘corridor of peace’ and urged both countries to ‘move forward and break their chains with the past,’ citing the example of France and Germany who fought many wars but have amicable relations today.
Welcoming the development, the Indian Prime Minister Narender Modi also said that, “Had anyone ever thought that the Berlin Wall would fall. Maybe with the blessings of Guru Nanak Devji, this Kartarpur corridor will not remain just a corridor, but act as a bridge between the peoples of the two countries.”
However, the Indian Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj decided not to attend the event but Sidhu and two Union ministers Harsimrat Kaur Badal and Hardeep Singh Puri represented the Indian side.
Publicly, the Indian response is subdued but the construction of the corridor has already started from their side of the border since the Indian cabinet approved the proposal.
If Sushma Swaraj had attended the inauguration, her presence would have elevated the meetings to the level of a bilateral dialogue and such talks have not taken place between both the nations since quite a while. Apparently, the imminent elections may be the reason why the ruling party is hesitating from upgrading links with Pakistan immediately.
Even though the total distance of this ‘corridor of peace’ as the Pakistani PM calls it, is only four kilometers, it has taken a long journey fraught with misunderstandings and friction to reach here. The future depends on whether both sides sustain positive dialogue, restore amicable terms, enhance trade ties and nurture more people to people links.
Sabena Siddiqui is a foreign affairs journalist and geopolitical analyst with special focus on the Belt and Road Initiative, CPEC and South Asia. She tweets @sabena_siddiqi.