By Dr S Saraswathi
(Former Director, ICSSR, New Delhi)
With mixed feelings of hope and fear, India is proceeding with the reopening of a passage to Pakistan that was closed during Partition. Vice President Venkaiah Naidu and Punjab Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh laid the foundation stone on 26 November to build a six-km long Kartarpur Sahib Corridor at Mann village from Dera Baba Nanak in Gurdaspur to the international border with Pakistan. Union Ministers for Transport Nitin Gadkari and Food Processing Harsimrat Kaur Badal were present.
The event in which NDA government at the Centre and Congress government in Punjab are participating will also mark a decision by consensus between two parties. Its success will, however, depend on the use of the route connecting not very friendly countries and travelers, who may include pilgrims and non-pilgrims.
This “corridor” meant for Sikh pilgrims, coming in the midst of growing distrust between India and Pakistan, is doubtless world news of immense significance in the global quest for peace everywhere. Recall, a proposed meeting between the Foreign Ministers of the two countries on the sidelines of UN General Assembly meeting in New York barely a couple of months ago in September last was cancelled abruptly thus temporarily putting an end to dialogue.
India and Pakistan have announced a plan to operationalise the corridor between Dera Baba Nanak in Gurdaspur in Punjab on the Indian side and Kartarpur Sahib in Punjab of Pakistan. It will greatly facilitate Sikh pilgrims from India to visit the iconic Gurdwara Darbar Sahib on the banks of River Ravi in Pakistan — the final resting place of Guru Nanak. The corridor will cut down the length of travel for pilgrims by about 200 km to just about 6 km. Indeed, a boon to Sikh community in both countries, who can also visit the janmasthan (birth place) of Guru Nanak at Nankana Sahib on the occasion of 550th birth anniversary of Guru Nanak!
Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan too laid the foundation on Pakistani side about 4km from the border on 28th November. External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj and Punjab CM who were to go to Pakistan for the event had cancelled their plans. However, Punjab Minister Navjot Singh Sidhu, who took some initiative in the matter and was invited to attend the function, was there along with Union Minister Hardeep Singh Puri and Harsimrat Kaur Badal.
Imran Khan assured the Sikh community that facilities at Kartarpur will be better for 550th birth celebrations for Guru Nanak Dev and added that “If France and Germany who fought several wars can live in peace, why not India and Pakistan. I want a strong relationship with India. Pakistan’s civilian and military leadership are on the same page on this.”
It has become common to allow two lines of thinking and even action in some policies —officially taken and declared one by the Government of India, and State-based or personal friendship based and pursued independently. It is seen in Sri Lankan policy, sharing of water with Bangladesh, and in dealing with illegal migrants, and now in accepting Pakistan’s invitation.
In this case, it is reported that Amarinder Singh in a letter to Pakistan Foreign Minister has given his reasons for declining the invitation given the increasing instances of attack on Indian soldiers and nefarious activities by the ISI in Punjab. At the foundation laying ceremony, he lashed out at Pakistan for supporting terrorism in India.
Over 3,800 pilgrims are given visa to attend Nanak’s 550th Birthday celebrations. Massive preparations are required for their safety and security, and more than that for preventing any terrorist infiltrations along with pilgrims. Risk taking is part of politics in resolving issues of undeclared attacks.
It seems to be a good beginning if the project has come with honest intentions of facilitating Sikh pilgrims and also promoting friendly contacts between the people of the two nations. It will help promotion of trade. Reciprocal feelings have to come from Pakistan not just by words, but by action. It is good to start with hope rather than suspicion and fear and take the message directly to the people. After all, left to themselves, people are largely friendly and cooperative.
Once the project is completed, Indian Sikh pilgrims will be granted visa-free entry to Pakistan for pilgrimage to Sikh shrines. There are a number of Gurdwaras in Pakistan among which some are considered very important like Nankana Sahib, Gurudwara Sachcha Sauda, Chaukarna Panja Sahib, and Hasan Abdal. So also, some famous mosques situated in India are pilgrim centres for Muslims.
History speaks of many corridors cutting across countries built for various purposes from ancient times. These are used both in war time and for peace.
Economic corridors are integrated networks of infrastructure within a geographical area designed to promote economic activity. Corridors are developed within a country as well as between countries. They are found in all countries — developed and developing as highways, railroads and ports, and link cities and countryside. Both surface and marine transport are used.
The term “corridor” to denote such linkage was applied by the Asian Development Bank in 1998 which suggested extension of economic corridors in Central and South-East Asia. Corridors in the 1990s were known mainly to link manufacturing hubs, areas with high supply and demand, and primarily to connect production places with markets.
Prime Minister Modi expressed a hope that like the fall of the Berlin Wall, construction of the Kartarpur corridor will lead to peace and amity between the two neighbours — a remark intended perhaps to open afresh moves to cement cracks between the two countries. Whatever the intention, its effect is likely to soften the firm stand of India against Pakistan support for Khalistan. India-Pakistan dialogue politics is undergoing ups and downs as a routine.
Remember, the partition of India in 1947 gave a decisive blow to communication and contact between people of the two countries with discontinuance of many transport services between the two countries. Two Indo-Pak wars led to termination of most transport links.
The only rail connection between the two countries was started in July 1976 when the Samjhauta Express between Attari in India and Lahore in Pakistan was commenced as a bi-weekly train following the Shimla Agreement between Indira Gandhi and President Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. It was not a straight route as passengers had to alight for customs and immigration checking. The train was discontinued on 1 January 2002 in the wake of terrorist attack on Indian Parliament and was resumed on 15 January 2004. It was again suspended in December 2007 after the assassination of Benazir Bhutto. Through train service was stopped and customs and immigration clearances were introduced at the border.
In 1999, Delhi-Lahore bus service was started by NDA government and Prime Minister Vajpayee himself travelled by the first bus. But, transport services have not helped elimination of enmity between the two countries.
It seems to be the age of faith in India more than in any other part of the world. Faith is used to unite and divide people, to catch voters, and to build political parties and pressure groups. It is used to preserve conventions and traditions.
The corridor, when completed, will fulfil a long-standing demand of Sikhs who form a minority both in India and Pakistan. Meant for pilgrims, it may stand as a monument of peace and brotherhood and raise hope in the place of fear.— INFA