Kartarpur Corridor: A game-changer?

The first thought that comes to mind when we hear about India and Pakistan is of quarrelsome neighbours who have done a few good things as well and who continue to survive various conflicts. With talks on the agreement covering Kartarpur Corridor getting underway this week – despite four tense weeks along the Line of Control – the planned visa-free passage is set to become a resilient bilateral arrangement.

Some of confidence-building measures that have remained intact despite tumultuous relations over the past decade include the biannual exchange of list of prisoners, sharing of lists of nuclear installations and facilities under Article-II of the 1988 Agreement on Prohibition of Attacks against Nuclear Installations and Facilities between Pakistan and India, Samjhota Express train service, the bus connections between Lahore and Delhi and the two parts of Kashmir, and the cross-LoC trade. A broader description of the surviving initiative is that it is mostly about projects that connect people.

The fact that the two sides have agreed to continue their negotiations on Kartarpur Corridor agreement shows that this latest initiative has the potential to survive the hostile nature of ties between the two countries. One must not forget that surviving the kind of shocks that are the norm in Pakistan-India ties requires a lot of strength.

The corridor is being inaugurated this year as part of Guru Nanak’s 550th birth anniversary.

Delegations from both sides met this week for negotiations on the agreement. There were two sets of meetings, one at the foreign ministries level and the second at the technical level. The discussions were on the features of the agreement and the alignment of the corridor infrastructure.

It may take a few weeks before the agreement is finalised and signed, but negotiating the document would not be a tough ask given that the political leaderships of both sides have agreed in principle to the corridor facilitating Sikh pilgrims from India. More significantly, there appears to be political will on both sides to carry on with the project. A more appropriate explanation would be that the political cost of running away from the project, particularly in the case of India, is too high.

That the BJP government was being forced to carry on with the project was evident from the shifting of venue of the negotiations on agreement to Attari from Delhi and the subsequent refusal of visa for Pakistani journalists who intended to cover the talks.

FO Spokesman Dr Muhammad Faisal said: “More than 30 Indian journalists covered the Kartarpur ground breaking ceremony in Pakistan last year. They also met the PM and a dinner was organised by the foreign minister during their stay.” However, he regretted, “India has not given visas to Pakistani journalists for the Kartarpur meeting tomorrow. Hope the Kartarpur Spirit and the meeting brings a change for the better for people of both countries.”

Indian Ministry of External Affairs’ explanation for engaging with Pakistan on Kartarpur Corridor, while keeping other things on hold, is a bit strange. According to MEA, Kartarpur is not about bilateral ties, it is about the faith of Indian Sikhs religion, and their access to the Gurdwara. While that may be a bit difficult to digest, the explanation is provided by the proverb: where there is a will, there is a way.

A look at Indian media shows that there is a race in Sikh-dominated areas between Indian political parties for taking credit of the opening of the corridor. Kartarpur has, in fact, become an electoral issue in some parts of India. Very few would recall that the issue had been on agenda for decades and it was Pakistan’s initiative last year to once again offer it to India. Pakistan offered them something they could not refuse.

Cricketers-turned-politician Navjot Singh Sindhu, who had an important role in the whole issue, had rightly warned the Indian government after Pulwama that cancelling the project would not be an option. “Sikhs’ Kartarpur corridor cannot stop. Do you want the decision taken by the two PMs to be scuttled? Then you will encourage them…Nobody can bend the country before terrorism and it is very clear,” Sidhu had said. The logic given by Sidhu is by no means limited to the Kartarpur Corridor. It has long been argued that India’s hostile responses to Pakistan after incidents of terrorism only serve to embolden terrorists.

More of such endeavours are required where positive stakes are created for the Indians in having normal neighbourly relations with Pakistan. Some are even predicting that Kartarpur Corridor will be a “game changer” for the tumultuous India-Pakistan relationship.

The writer is a senior researcher at Islamabad Policy Institute. She can be reached at 

mamoona.rubab@ipipk.org

Published in The Friday Times , March 15, 2019.

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