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Kartarpur corridor will not help resolve India-Pak tensions

Aparna Pande

India and Pakistan opened a corridor recently so that Sikh pilgrims from India’s Punjab state might visit some of their religion’s holiest shrines located across the border. The ceremony marking the opening provided an opportunity for Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan to break some of the international isolation he has faced since his rise to office. This came in the form of the presence of Indian ministers from the Sikh community at his side as well as the chance to speak to Indian and international media. But beyond that, the event contributed little to the process of reducing India-Pakistan tensions.

From India’s perspective, the opening of the Kartarpur corridor was a regional affair that appeased the limited constituency of Sikhs in Indian Punjab. Pakistan’s support for terrorism remains the larger issue for India and Khan’s willingness to allow Indian pilgrims to visit holy shrines simply does not change that reality. India has entered its election cycle, making it difficult for New Delhi to ignore Pakistan’s role in supporting terrorists operating in Jammu and Kashmir and the rest of India.

Pakistan’s manifold crises, both domestic and foreign, also make it difficult for Khan to concede ground lest he be attacked for being soft on India, like he attacked his predecessors. That is why he simply repeats the mantra of how Pakistan wants good relations with India and insists that only the final resolution of the Kashmir dispute would pave the way for the two countries to live side by side as friends and neighbors. There is no acknowledgment that perpetrators of terrorist attacks in India, such as the masterminds of the 26/11 attacks in Mumbai, remain free to organize and operate in Pakistan.

Khan’s attempt to change from India hawk to dove soon after coming to office follows a well-worn pattern. Every time a new civilian Prime Minister assumes office in Pakistan, they raise hopes not just in India but also around the world about better relations between the two South Asian nations. But had resolution of the Kashmir dispute and the India-Pakistan standoff been that easy, relations would have improved as far back as the 1950s. At that time, the founding generation of both countries was alive, with personal relationships from the pre-partition era, and neither country was nuclear armed, nor were ties impeded by the existence of jihadi groups targeting India.

The expectations raised by some sections of the media over the opening of the Kartarpur Sahib are unrealistic because they fail to consider the real reasons for hostility between India and Pakistan. There is also an unwillingness to focus on the different motives and political incentives at work.

For Imran Khan, the Kartarpur corridor is a way to demonstrate that his Naya (New) Pakistan will resolve all problems that ailed Purana (Old) Pakistan, from economy to foreign policy. He believes that simply stating “if India takes one step, Pakistan will take two” will create the appearance of a peace process, sufficient to make him seem like a statesman. Khan saw the opening of the Kartarpur Sahib corridor—which will link Kartarpur Sahib Gurudwara in Pakistan with Dera Baba Nanak in India’s Gurdaspur district—as a political masterstroke. His Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi used the metaphor of “a googly” (a difficult ball directed at a batsman in cricket) to describe Khan’s initiative, exposing the cynicism at work behind it.

For India, the Kartarpur corridor is simply that, a corridor to ease access for Sikh pilgrims to their religious sites. It is an issue-specific concession, akin to offering visas for medical purposes, that ties in with India’s overall policy of improving people-to-people ties with Pakistan. It does not, however, reflect any change in Indian policy on substantive matters and, therefore, does not ease India’s policy over the last several years of refusing direct high-level talks with Pakistan until the issue of terrorism is addressed.

In an age of social media and 24-hour news cycles people have a short memory and there is a tendency to forget what happened in history. Every Indian Prime Minister from Jawaharlal Nehru to Narendra Modi has thought of improvement of ties with Pakistan as one of their legacies. That this has not happened in 70-plus years should explain some of the inherent difficulties.

Going back to the 1950s, better people to people relations, and ease of travel and tourism were proposed by the Indian side. From the 1990s, Delhi sought to push for closer economic ties by offering Pakistan Most Favored Nation (MFN) status, that has yet to be reciprocated. In the last two decades, rail and bus links or visas for medical purposes have been viewed as the catalyst that might break down the barriers between the two countries.

There is consensus in India that a politically stable and economically integrated South Asia is in India’s national interest. Only in recent years has a strong anti-Pakistan sentiment emerged in India, particularly in the aftermath of the 1999 Kargil and the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks, both of which are reflective of a tendency on Pakistan’s part to use peace initiatives as an opportunity to covertly launch attacks.

The resumption of dialogue between India and Pakistan is being held back by the reluctance of the Pakistani security establishment to change its core views on India. Pakistani civilian leaders initiating friendship towards India—such as Benazir Bhutto, Nawaz Sharif, and Asif Zardari—have been targeted by their domestic opponents as “security risks” or “Indian agents” at the security establishment’s instigation. They also lost influence and power soon after initiating any peace process with India.

Since independence in 1947, Pakistan’s identity and foreign policy have been framed around the notion of an existential threat from India. Since the 1971 India-Pakistan war that led to the breakup of Pakistan and the creation of Bangladesh, Pakistan’s establishment has consistently supported insurgent and terror groups that have targeted India in the hope that this would help “cut India down to size” and ensure that India is unable to undo Partition.

In addition to helping groups in Kashmir, the Pakistani military and intelligence have also supported the Khalistan movement that seeks an independent Sikh state carved out of Indian Punjab. Although major violence in Punjab ended by the late 1980s, the Khalistan separatist movement survives abroad with Pakistan’s backing. The presence of a known pro-Khalistan leader, Gopal Singh Chawla, at the Kartarpur opening ceremony has already raised eyebrows in Delhi.

The opening of the Kartarpur Sahib corridor is hardly a step towards normal relations between India and Pakistan. If the Kartarpur corridor results in a rise of terror attacks by Khalistani operatives it would strengthen the views of those within India who believe that Pakistan just cannot be trusted.

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