Prevailing Indo-Pak hostility drowns Kartarpur corridor’s symbolism

Prevailing Indo-Pak hostility drowns Kartarpur corridor’s symbolism

There is undeniable symbolism attached to the opening of the four-kilometre long Kartarpur corridor, connecting Gurdwara Darbar Sahib in Narowal to Dera Baba Nanak in Gurdaspur, to facilitate Sikh pilgrimage from India to Pakistan.

Sikhism’s founder Guru Nanak Dev spent over 18 years in the Kartarpur area located in the Narowal district with the Gurdwara annually visited by pilgrims from India on Guru Nanak’s birth anniversary.

Over 3500visas have been issued to Indian pilgrims this year. And with the groundbreaking ceremony held on Wednesday, Pakistan has announced that it plans to formally open the corridor on November 29 next year to mark Guru Nanak’s 550th birth anniversary – over three decades after the corridor was originally proposed.

Hostile inertia

In a region mired in religious conflict, with borders defined along the same lines, the Kartarpur corridor is understandably being dubbed a stepping stone for reconciliation. Unfortunately, the reality remains hostage to the hostile inertia exhibited by the two states linked by the corridor.

Prominent sections of the Indian media, for instance, are already touting the move as an Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) backed plot to use the corridor as the foundation for the promotion of the Sikh secessionist Khalistan movement.

In fact, it is also being claimed that Islamabad has deliberately timed the groundbreaking ceremony to overshadow the 10th anniversary of the Mumbai attacks,and not in commemoration of Guru Nanak’s birth anniversary.

Where the ISI is connected with the Sikh for Justice (SFJ) separatist movement, its Indian counterpart Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) is linked to Baloch secessionism.

In fact,two days before the groundbreaking of the Kartarpur corridor, Pakistan’s Senate had adopted a resolution against India for its role in last month’s attack on the Chinese consulate in Karachi, claimed by the Baloch Liberation Army (BLA).

Cross-border militancy

Even more conflict laden than Balochistan or Khalistan is the realm of Kashmir, with the disputed territory – and the cross-border militancy that centers around it –long being used as rationale by leaders on either side as justification for persistent animosity against one another.

Analysts say that Islamabad’s lack of interest in anything more than international tokenism through the Kartarpur corridor can be seen in the fact that the Mumbai attacks mastermind Lashkar-e-Taiba Chief Hafiz Saeed is no longer listed as a terrorist in the country despite having been listed as such earlier this year in a failed bid to forestall the Financial Action Task Force’s (FATF) bid to grey list Pakistan.

While the Pakistan government spokesperson Fawad Chaudhry maintains that this is owing to the lapsing of anti-terror ordinance, and not a lifting of a ban on Islamabad’s part, the fact that Hafiz Saeed affiliated groups contested the general elections this year is being seen as evidence that shows who has their back.

Where the Pakistani military establishment won’t give up on its Kashmir bound jihadist assets – both as cross-border militancy tools and political counterweights to keep the civilian leadership in check – the Indian leadership isn’t particularly interested in a resolution of the Kashmir dispute– among others –either. This is especially true since maintaining the status quo in Kashmir has been the traditional Indian policy.

Cross-border hysteria

Given the Indian general elections are just six months away, the anti-Pakistan rhetoric is already on the up, similar to the anti-India hysteria on display in the July elections in Pakistan.

Indian Minister for External Affairs Sushma Swaraj turned down the offer to participate in the groundbreaking ceremony of the Kartarpur corridor, adding that India will not participate in the SAARC summit if it’s held in Pakistan, urging Islamabad to “stop terrorist activities in India.”

Indian Minister for Housing Hardeep Puri and Minister for Food Harsimrat Kaur Badal were present at the groundbreaking ceremony, which was also attended by diplomats and journalists from across the border.

Pleasantries were exchanged between the two countries, especially Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan and Punjab Minister of Tourism and Culture Navjot Singh Sidhu, who also attended Khan’s oath-taking ceremony in August amidst backlash at home. During the ceremony, Khan reiterated his vow to take “two steps forward in friendship”if India took one.

Even so,such claims are being seen as feel-good cosmetics not loud enough to drown the war-mongering echoes that have reverberated around the Kartarpur corridor’s groundbreaking, let alone playing much part in the undoing of seven decades of animosity.

Analysts from both sides of the border weighed in on the corridor’s opening.

‘No icebreaker’

“It’s a goodwill gesture, that’s about it. It is no icebreaker unfortunately. It could have been a step towards breaking that ice, but that doesn’t seem likely considering the Indian response. This would remain the case at least till their election,”believes Pakistan Today’s Opinion Editor Shahab Jafry.

“For a brief moment in time, the BJP government was seen as the best shot for progress between India and Pakistan. But the real progress was made with the Manmohan Singh [Congress] administration. It seems to have lost steam in the present cycle and quite deliberately so,” he added.

While Jafry doesn’t expect much progress in bilateral ties, he doesn’t rule it out completely either.

“Can never predict in black and white on such matters. The Modi government did still allow the Kartarpur Corridor’s opening, for instance. I do feel that Imran Khan genuinely wants to improve ties with India – as far as appearances can be trusted. For once, the khalai makhlooq seems willing too.”

‘Window of opportunity’

“The Kartarpur corridor has been welcomed not just by Sikhs, but all those who desire a more harmonious relationship between India and Pakistan. Enhanced people to people contacts could certainly lead to a manageable relationship, ifnot a perfect one, and strengthen those lobbies which desire better relations,”notes Tridivesh Singh Maini, author of Humanity Amidst Insanity: Hope During and After the Indo-Pak Partition.

“Yet it is important to be realistic, while it is an important step for the Sikh community as well as the two Punjabs, the corridor cannot be viewed in isolation from the strained ties between both countries.

“While analysts look at the core issue in terms of terrorism, Kashmir etc, the real problem is the fact that those who want more robust linkages are not influential enough, because currently lobbies having a vested interest in conflict shape the narrative.

“The bilateral relations will depend a lot on factors other than the political parties in power. It is too early to comment, but Imran Khan has taken some positive initiatives so far, and there will be a window of opportunity post the elections in 2019.”

‘Imran Khan doesn’t control foreign policy’

International Relations analyst and Correspondent for The Diplomat Umair Jamal doesn’t think the opening of the Kartarpur corridor is going to facilitate genuine peace process.

“Rather,both states are trying to gain domestically. The BJP lead government in India is focused on the upcoming general election and the opening of the corridor is happening in that context. Pakistan, on its part, is trying to send a message that it’s interested in peace talks with New Dehli while knowing that the government in India is not going to move beyond the corridor, not at least till the next general election,” he says.

“The opening of the corridor may be considered good confidence building measure between India and Pakistan but it’s not a game changer in any way. It doesn't touch any core issues which have remained a challenge concerning the bilateral relationship. India wants action from Pakistan on the issues of cross border terrorism while Pakistan expects New Delhi to change its policy on Kashmir,water issues and its role in the region, particularly in Afghanistan.

“What’s unclear is this: is New Dehli now willing to open talks with the civilian government in Pakistan knowing that Imran Khan doesn't have much control of the country's foreign policy and with the change of leadership in the military,Pakistan's policy towards India can change overnight?”

‘Terrorism is elephant in the room’

“The biggest elephant in the room remains Pakistan sponsored terrorism aimed at India. [This is] despite the US suspension of aid, repeated warnings by President Donald Trump, international watchdog FATF implicating Pakistan in terror funding,” says Aarti Tikoo Singh, Senior Assistant Editor at The Times of India.

“The training camps of banned terror camps Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jaish-e-Mohammad and Hizbul Mujahideen remain operational in Pakistan. Chiefs of terror groups are not only free, but enjoy complete impunity and state patronage. Pakistan has done absolutely nothing to prosecute and convict the mastermind of 26/11 Mumbai terror attack”.

Aarti Tikoo Singh believes whichever political party rules either of the two countries is irrelevant to actual solutions to the issues between India and Pakistan.

“Prime Minister Imran Khan has said that there is a consensus among civilian and military leadership on everything in Pakistan. So it is very unlikely that anything will change under Khan’s government,” she says.

“General elections in India next year will have little impact on the relations between the two countries. Please remember that unlike Pakistan, India has been a strong and effective democracy since Independence and yet the polls do not determine the relations between the two countries.”

‘Semi-fascism in India’

Senior political analyst, and founder editor of online Urdu newspaper Hum Sub, Wajahat Masood says the two countries should move beyond optics.

“These optics won’t change the fundamentals of the diplomacy between India and Pakistan. There are countless similar examples from the past, when limited movement was allowed even in Kashmir for example, that we’ve been dreaming about since the Samjhota Express was started in 1974,” he says.

“There is a fundamental difference between the two countries’ political dispensations. The economic paradigms are significantly different as well. Hence, statesmanship is needed to give serious reflection to the fundamental problems, especially the territorial conflict between the two states.

“Both nations need to move ahead and not be prisoners to the [Kashmir] conflict. The biggest problem for Pakistan is that there no longer is economic parity between the two states like it was more or less till around 1990. India is now a serious economic power, hence the international comity of nations will not see Pakistan and India identically.”

Wajahat Masood believes the BJP government remains a major hurdle in any reconciliation with Pakistan.

“BJP’s politics is based on exclusivism and exceptionalism, which isn’t negotiable.There is now semi-fascism in India. The communal aspect of BJP’s politics isn’t dissimilar to that exhibited by sectarian parties in Pakistan.”

‘BJP will ask Sidhu to contest elections in

Harilal Rajagopal, an opinion editor at Malayalam newspaper Mathrubhumi, urges both states to make the most of any opportunity to build differences.

“Of course,we have to grab every opportunity to make the relation close with two estranged relatives. The core issue is mistrust. We have to stop emotions [centering around] Kashmir and build relations based on trade and commerce,” he says.

“For that India believes that Pakistan has to become a robust democratic system without being controlled by its military. Chances are strong for a Modi govt [coming to power again] in India. We here are a bit skeptical about the PTI’s moves.”

Upmita Vajpai, a special correspondent at the Hindi newspaper Dainik Bhaskar, expresses that scepticism.

“[TheKartarpur Corridor] is just going to be another peace pomp and show. [It has] very less chance of helping peace through Kartarpur, as the main issue and tension is on the Kashmir border. Punjab is a peaceful border among the two countries,”she says.

“The core issue is terrorism. Pakistan will have to be strict against home grown terrorism. They should get rid of terrorism to help India and also themselves.They should be truthful and sincere in their efforts.”

Upmita Vajpai agrees that BJP remains a hindrance towards peace. “BJP may try to prove themselves as a stronger party against terror. PTI has shown no such steps towards India till now which is directed towards government.”

“They are [instead]trying to play with opposition parties of India. This can be used against Congress in next election. Wait for some time and you will see BJP leaders asking Sidhu to contest elections in Pakistan.”

The author is a Lahore-based journalist. He is a correspondent for The Diplomat, and The Asia Times and contributes to various Pakistani and international publications. He tweets @khuldune