ROAD TO NOWHERE
The opening of the Kartarpur Corridor has led to more misgivings rather than improving ties between India and Pakistan
Half a millennium ago, at a time when Britain and Europe were seeing the back of the bloody Middle Ages, some Hindus and Muslims of the Indian subcontinent were building mausoleums in Kartarpur by the bank of river Ravi in memory of Guru Nanak Dev, the founder of Sikhism.
Coming amid the rise of the Mughal Empire, this legendary Sikh guru was so universally loved and revered that the builders of both the Hindu and Islamic mausoleums had readily agreed to share a wall between them. This has been the most enduring story in the history of Kartarpur, the place where Guru Nanak spent the last years of his life, until recently.
In the 21st century, a very different set of stories have been revolving around this place.
Most of them invariably go back to the time of the ugly Partition when Kartarpur [by then a long-time prime shrine of the Sikhs, being home to its eponymous gurdwara that was built on the site where Baba Nanak had died] unfortunately ended up in Pakistani territory.
Thanks to the historically strained relations between New Delhi and Islamabad, most Indian devotees have only been able to pay obeisance to their great Guru from a distance – one of less than five kilometres but well-nigh impossible to cover over the past seven decades.
A solution to this problem – in the shape of Kartarpur Corridor [a border corridor connecting Gurdwara Darbar Sahib Kartarpur in Pakistan to Dera Baba Nanak Sahib in Punjab through a bridge across the Ravi, facilitating visa-free visits for Indian devotees] – had been in the works since 1999 when then prime ministers Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Nawaz Sharif had choreographed the Delhi-Lahore Bus initiative.
But the shocking breakout of Kargil War later that year, the attack on Indian Parliament in 2001, and continued Pakistan-sponsored terrorism in India ensured that the Kartarpur Corridor plan moved at a glacial pace, if at all, until a few months ago when Punjab cabinet minister Navjot Singh Sidhu returned with some positive news on that front after attending fellow former cricketer Imran Khan’s prime ministerial swearing-in ceremony in Islamabad last August.
While fiercely defending his controversial hug with General Qamad Javed Bajwa, Sidhu had proudly announced that the Pakistani army chief had shared with him Islamabad’s plan to open the Kartarpur Corridor on the 550th birth anniversary of Guru Nanak on November 29 this year.
Exactly a week before the big occasion, the project got a go-ahead from the Indian side, too, as the Union Cabinet met and agreed on developing the proposed Kartarpur Corridor from Dera Babab Nanak in Gurdaspur, Punjab, to the international border with Pakistan.
Soon after attending the cabinet meeting chaired by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley told the press that the special corridor would feature all modern facilities at the border terminal that could help pilgrims visit the shrine throughout the year.
The Modi government’s decision was widely hailed.
In a letter to Union External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj, Sidhu wrote that he was “extremely grateful and indebted” to the Government of India for its move, which will “write a new chapter of faith and love for the region” and serve as a “soothing balm” for the historically squabbling neighbouring nations.
Former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh also praised the Modi government for its “good initiative” even as he cautioned against underestimating the potential roadblocks that could come along the way of the project’s execution.
Most notably, Islamabad lauded the decision as a victory for forces of peace in both nations.
"It is a step in the right direction and we hope such steps will encourage voice of reason and tranquility on both sides of the border," Pakistan Information and Broadcasting Minister Fawad Chaudhry stated.
Promptly seeking to dispel any notion that its decision was a response to Pakistan’s move on that front, the Indian government stated that the approval for the corridor was always a part of its plans to celebrate the 550th birth anniversary. Sources from the ministry kept reiterating before the media that the proposal of corridor to Kartarpur had been a two-decades-long demand of India which Pakistan had consistently ignored.
As the auspicious time drew closer, a plethora of ominous controversies arose around the issue.
On November 23, it emerged that Pakistan had been preventing the consular officials of the High Commission of Indian Embassy in Islamabad from having access to the pilgrims visiting the two gurdawaras. In response, the Indian government lodged a strong protest with Islamabad.
“Despite having been granted prior travel permission by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Pakistan, the consular officials of the High Commission of India in Islamabad were harassed and denied access at Gurdwara Nankana Sahib and Gurudwara Sacha Sauda to the Indian pilgrims visiting Pakistan under the Bilateral Protocol," the External Affairs Ministry said in a statement.
The statement was referring to Pakistan’s breach of the 1974 Bilateral Protocol on Visits to Religious Shrines and the 1992 Code of Conduct for the treatment of diplomatic and consular personnel in the two nations.
The Indian government expressed particular concern over reported attempts being made towards inciting communal disharmony and secessionist tendencies against India among visiting Sikh pilgrims to Pakistan.
Then came another one involving Sidhu’s decision to attend the groundbreaking ceremony of the Kartarpur Corridor in Pakistan. With a handful of assembly elections around the corner and Sidhu being a popular campaigner, the Congress party itself was wary of seeing one of its most visible ministers appearing all too friendly with a Pakistani regime.
Punjab chief minister Amarinder Singh himself declined Pakistan’s invitation for the ceremony on grounds that Islamabad fomented terrorism in India and had the blood of numerous soldiers of the country on its hands.
Although he did ask Sidhu to reconsider his decision, the Punjab CM made a conscious and mature decision not to force the issue, which thankfully prevented it from unnecessarily snowballing into a raging controversy.
The raging controversy came along on November 26 in Dera Baba Nanak city where a high-profile function to lay the foundation stone of the linking road to Kartarpur Sahib corridor was to commence.
A few hours before Vice President M. Venkaiah Naidu and the Punjab CM were to arrive to conduct the ceremony, Punjab cabinet Minister Sukhjinder Singh Randhawa almost created a scene on the site. He had a problem with the foundation stone, which had the names of former Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal and Sukhbir Singh Badal's on it, along with those of Randhawa and his ministerial colleagues.
"I will put a tape on my name. This [foundation stone] is unacceptable," a testy Randhawa told a TV channel.
"The Badals have no contribution in getting the Kartarpur corridor project cleared. They ruled Punjab from 1997 to 2002 and again for 10 years [2007-2017]. Did they come here to offer prayers while in power? They are only trying to take credit [for the Kartarpur corridor] just because they [Shiromani Akali Dal] have an alliance with the BJP," the Minister fumed.
Randhawa also expressed serious concerns that the Congress leadership of Punjab was being intentionally sidelined with the Badal family getting all the focus on the occasion.
This quickly transformed into an ugly political row between members of the Congress and the BJP-Shiromani Akali Dal [SAD] alliance, which vitiated the atmosphere of what was supposed to be a solemn event. In the presence of Vice President Naidu, accusations were flying thick and fast between the opposing sides as they claimed credit for the project seeing light of the day.
While Union cabinet minister Harsimrat Badal from the Akali Dal blamed Congress for the 1984 anti-Sikh riots, Punjab Congress president Sunil Jakhar accused SAD of making Punjab an illegal drugs capital.
Finally, with the original foundation stone for the road project done away with, Vice President Naidu and Punjab CM Amarinder Singh ended up laying a digital foundation stone that carried only the names of – in addition to their own – Punjab governor VP Singh Badnore and Highways Minister Nitin Gadkari.
The day of the groundbreaking ceremony, November 28, ended up being something of a mixed bag.
External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj declared that India would not attend the proposed Saarc Summit in Pakistan and there would be no dialogue with Islamabad until it stopped sponsoring terrorism. Speaking to the media in Hyderabad, Swaraj reiterated that talks and terror cannot go together.
Meanwhile, in what appeared to be in sharp contrast, Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan assumed a highly conciliatory tone as he talked about agreement between military and political leadership of his country that if New Delhi took one step towards lasting peace and improved ties with Pakistan, then Islamabad would take two for the same with India.
However, Khan also brought up Kashmir on the occasion, saying the political leadership of both nations needed to resolve the long-festering issue
"I am telling you our army and political parties are on the same page. We want to move forward. We want a civilised relationship. There is one issue and that is Kashmir. Man has reached moon. Can't we solve our one issue? There is no such thing which cannot be solved. Both the countries need leadership with determination. Once the relationship improves, see what potential it offers to the two countries."
Even as Khan’s words made news, Indian Army Chief General Bipin Rawat sought to remind one and all that the Kartarpur Corridor initiative ought to be “seen in isolation” and not linked with any other outstanding issue between the two nations.
Soon, the Indian government decried Khan’s reference to Kashmir during the groundbreaking ceremony in Kartarpur. An External Affairs Ministry spokesperson stated that the Pakistani PM had politicised a pious occasion with his untimely and unwarranted broaching of the issue.
What made matters worse was Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi's remarks that Khan had bowled India a “googly” with his initiative on the Kartarpur Corridor.
Left red-faced, the Pakistani PM was soon compelled to express disapproval of his foreign minister’s statement. "The ceremony was a peace initiative. It was a sincere effort. So was the invitation extended to the Indian ministers. It was not a googly for sure," Khan was quoted by Geo News as saying at a media meeting in Islamabad.
The same statement also kicked off another war of words between the foreign ministers of both India and Pakistan. Swaraj said Qureshi's “googly” comments exposed his lack of respect for Sikh sentiments, he accused her of deliberately trying to mislead the Sikh community.
The sparring between the neighbouring foreign ministers had barely been over when another one began right at home – between the BJP and Congress.
This began when Prime Minister Narendra Modi, while addressing a public meeting in Rajasthan, raked up some unpleasant history revolving around Kartarpur. He said “lure of power” made Congress make the big mistake of letting Kartapur Sahib go to Pakistan.
"Had they had even a little sensitivity and wisdom about what place Guru Nanak Dev holds in the hearts and minds of the Indian people, our Kartarpur, a mere three kilometres away, would not have been taken away from us," PM Modi stated.
He also slammed Congress for failing to help the nation’s Sikh devotees visit Kartarpur.
"The Congress remained in power for 70 years, battles were fought, battles were won also. Tall claims were made. But it could not make arrangement for one to worship at the Guru Nanak Devji's resting place,” the Prime Minister pointed out.
This infuriated the Congress, leading to many of its leaders accusing Modi of being in the habit of distorting facts and misrepresenting them to support his point.
Senior Congress leader Kapil Sibal stated how Modi had claimed India to be a US$8 trillion economy during his conversation with Facebook boss Mark Zuckerberg in the United States when the right figure was a little over US$2 trillion. The ace advocate-turned-politician also sought to put the spotlight on PM Modi mistakenly claiming at the World Economic Forum in Davos that "more than 600 crore voters” had voted the BJP to power in India.
Putting an intelligent spin on it, Congress president Rahul Gandhi said Modi was belittling both Mahatma Gandhi and Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel by questioning the intelligence and understanding of Congress leaders at the time of partition.
Not long later, the hitherto reconciliatory pitch of Pakistan’s prime minister had become much less so.
On December 6, Khan was heard telling his Cabinet that India had unfortunately and wrongly given a “political colour” to the Kartarpur Corridor story.
“We did it because it is part of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf's manifesto," he pointed out, while expressing hope that India would respond on a more positive note soon.
But the chances of that happening anytime soon significantly diminished by the very next day.
In an interview to the Washington Post, he said New Delhi brushed aside his friendly overtures because the BJP has “an anti-Muslim, anti-Pakistan approach” and also due to the upcoming 2019 general elections in India.
A few hours later, while addressing an event in Islamabad, Khan even went on to say that the current plight of Muslims in India justified the creation of Pakistan as a “separate homeland” for the followers of Islam.
As the strained diplomatic relations between India and Pakistan seemed to be back to square one, if not poised to plumb new depths, a World Bank report titled "Glass Half Full: Promise of Regional Trade in South Asia" was released, in which it said that the current US$2 billion worth of trade between the two neighbours had the potential to be as high as US$37 billion if artificial barriers were broken down.
Speaking to the press at the World Bank office in Islamabad, economist Sanjay Kathuria, the author of the report, expressed hope that developments such as the opening of the Kartarpur Corridor could go a long way in minimising the trust deficit – and consequently trade deficit – between India and Pakistan.
So far, though, the Kartarpur border opening has resulted in anything but that.
The damage that colonial Britain inflicted by splitting the subcontinent before leaving it has been lasting. Given the current political status quo within India and its relationship with Pakistan, any change for the better seems to be well out of sight.
It took an exemplary life led by a legendary leader like Guru Nanak to create a sense of brotherhood among the Hindus and Muslims, one strong enough for them to build mausoleums together in tribute to him. Just as those mausoleums stood tall until the Ravi changed its course and washed them away, the monumental misgivings between India and Pakistan will remain until the political leadership on both sides proves to be at least a fraction as inspirational as the first Sikh guru and the military establishment in Pakistan, which has historically supported terrorism in India, changes its long-held course.