The India-Pakistan mistrust and hostility defines much of the security paradigm in South Asia. Both countries have had fits when they have indulged the other in holding bilateral talks but each step forward has also seen two steps backward. Hence, the recent decision by both India and Pakistan to build the Kartarpur corridor offers a chance at peace.
The visa-free corridor will help lakhs of Sikh pilgrims from India visit the holy shrine of Gurdwara Darbar Sahib Kartarpur in Pakistan, where the founder of the Sikh faith Guru Nanak lived for the last 18 years of his life.
But the politics surrounding the event has seen many shades. While Pakistan sent in a formal invitation to external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj to attend the ceremony in Pakistan, she declined citing prior commitments. Instead, India has decided to send two ministers to Pakistan for the ground breaking ceremony.
Swaraj’s going to Pakistan would have been a signal that India wants relations to return to normalcy. Given the fact that India is already in the election mode for 2019, the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) would have seen this as being politically too risky.
Former Indian Ambassador BS Prakash explains that in India there have always been two views on dealing with Pakistan. One, that India must keep the dialogue going with Pakistan and try and normalise relations with the people of Pakistan, especially in areas like trade, Bollywood, cricket and religious issues.
The other view has been that how can India have any talks with Pakistan till cross border terror activities do not stop. “In my view, we seem to be oscillating between the two views. Even the political establishment seems to be split. But the Kartarpur gesture seems to suggest we are going in the direction of the view that we need to have some kind of relationship with Pakistan,” he said.
However Ambassador Prakash cautions that he would not see this as an opening for peace between the two countries but rather see it as a hope, and that is also the hope of the people and PM Modi that this leads to something good.
In the Indian state of Punjab too, politics has played over the occasion. Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh declined Pakistan’s offer to visit for the ground breaking ceremony citing Pakistan’s terror activities. However, a minister from his Cabinet, Navjot Singh Sidhu is all set to attend the event.
It is also an interesting twist to the entire situation that Sidhu has given the credit for the Kartarpur corridor to the Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan. “The real credit for the corridor goes to Imran Khan, and also to the people, who prayed for several years for its construction,” Sidhu said to an Indian television channel.
Former Indian Ambassador Ashok Sajjanhar pointed out that the, “the decision by the Indian government to reach out to Pakistan on this issue is another instance of its sincerity and earnestness to improve relations with that country. Many such efforts have been made in the past but they have come to nought because Pakistan’s policy on relations with India, of which low cost terrorism is an integral element, is determined by its army and intelligence agency. So while this initiative has huge potential, it is unlikely that it will have the desired result of setting bilateral relations on a new trajectory.”
Setting a more positive tone to the event, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has said that the Kartarpur Corridor could be a reason to connect people, adding that the incidents of 1947 should be left behind.
He also added that if the Berlin Wall, which separated the people of East and West Germany, could be pulled down, then the Kartarpur Corridor between India and Pakistan can also promote people to people contact.
Though the signals seem mixed, and the upcoming 2019 elections in India, make any substantial progress to peace between the two nations difficult, the very fact that the two countries have been able to come together for the Kartarpur corridor offers a real chance at peace.
Any hope at this point of time that a structured, bilateral dialogue can resume soon between India and Pakistan would be way off the mark. But a beginning is possible and that is something politicians from both sides should seize.