India has done well to go ahead with Kartarpur | Opinion
Visible diplomatic breakthroughs in the frozen India-Pakistan terrain are rare. When they occur, they must be applauded and celebrated. The opening of the Kartarpur corridor is one such breakthrough. The successful completion of the negotiation to establish such a corridor, construct it, and declare it open — all within a finite period — represents that rare cocktail of steps that together constitute a success.
Most major initiatives, especially those with a people-to-people dimension, in the India-Pakistan context, broadly have coincided with periods when the political relationship has been looking up. In the 1950s, agreements on traffic of pilgrims, sporting contests, and generally on cultural contacts, all overlapped with less hostile political contexts. Then the thaw of 1977 to 1979 saw the resumption of the Delhi-Lahore train (suspended since 1965), and the opening of the Indian consulate in Karachi, after diplomatic relations were re-established after the India-Pakistan War of 1971. The Delhi-Lahore bus came about in the context of Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s famous visit to Lahore in 1999. Between 2004 and 2008, such steps multiplied following his next visit to Islamabad in 2004. The opening up of the Line of Control (LoC) sfor travel and trade (for the first time since 1947), the reopening of the Kokraphar Munabao rail link after its closure in 1965, the bus service to Nankana Sahib are only the most prominent of the measures then put in place.
The Kartarpur negotiation and corridor opening had no such positive context. On the contrary, the recent past has been a particularly turbulent phase of the relationship. This makes the corridor more significant.
Inevitably, in so heavily securitised a relationship, this step may be accompanied in India by a measure of cynicism, even frustration. Some feel that we have fallen into a Pakistan “trap” and the flood gates will now open for Pakistan to use the Khalistani card, or somehow leverage the corridor to advance its terrorist agenda. Such concerns also coalesce with positions that have a general antipathy to embark on anything positive to do with Pakistan. Most India-Pakistan breakthroughs are accompanied by similar fears and apprehensions. The point is not to dismiss these concerns, but rather take them into account and devise systems and procedures accordingly.
The question of allowing Indians to go to Pakistan “on foot” across the Radcliffe Line at the Attari-Wagah border, or Pakistanis to traverse in the other direction, was held up for decades on similar grounds. Resistance was fierce on both sides by security agencies. Nevertheless, when such crossings were freely permitted from 2008 onwards, it was quickly realised that no real compromise with security had taken place. It was similar with the cross-LoC travel. Before it began, the doubts expressed on security grounds, again on both sides, seemed insurmountable. After being permitted, and established procedures drawn up, many of the concerns seemed exaggerated.
The point surely is that the general grounds of security cannot be allowed to trump important political initiatives. Security issues must be addressed through robust Standard Operating Procedures, rather than being used an argument for status quo, and denying religious and popular requests.
The Partition in north India had a calamitous impact on the devout of all faiths. Sikhs found that many of their most important shrines were west of the Radcliffe Line — in Lahore, Hasan Abdal, Nankana Sahib, Kartarpur. Similarly, for Muslims in Pakistan, Nizammudin, Sirhind, Ajmer and other places were out of reach. There are similar examples of Hindu shrines in Punjab and in Sindh. From the very beginning, it was mutually accepted that access to these shrines must be allowed. Expanding pilgrimages through a variety of instruments became part of the India-Pakistan agenda.
Security concerns will persist — and for us in India it would be foolhardy to ignore them — but these can be, and are addressed, without denying the legitimate requests of our citizens. Admittedly, large Sikh Jathas visiting Pakistan would often be exposed to Khalistan propaganda. But, on the whole, Jatha leaders and the pilgrims themselves know how to insulate themselves from this. That considerations of security alone should stop pilgrim traffic was fortunately never seriously contemplated.
Much is being made of photographs of known terrorists being used in Pakistani propaganda. Pakistan will certainly use every opportunity to embarrass us — using not just religious shrines, but any other pretext. This is in the nature of the zero-sum relationship that exists. These and related provocations will continue. The real trap would be to fail to take political initiatives and let security concerns paralyse decision- making.
The government has acted with maturity and sagacity to avoid falling into the trap of being unresponsive to a longstanding demand for establishing the Kartarpur corridor. That its inauguration coincides with the 550th birth anniversary of Guru Nanak is a further plus, and makes it a landmark decision in India-Pakistan relations and for Sikhs in India.
TCA Raghavan is a former High Commissioner to Pakistan and is currently DG, Indian Council of World Affairs
The views expressed are personal