India must ensure that Pakistan doesn’t use the corridor to revive pro-Khalistan sentiment in the name of faith
The freedom to practise one’s faith and seek succour at shrines dedicated to it has been a challenge for nation states that are in conflict with each other but share a religious and cultural heritage beyond borders. However, as this is a UN-mandated human rights issue, every nation has tried to work out a protocol, Israel and Palestine being prime examples of ensuring cross-flow of pilgrims to shrines on each side despite the attendant security imperatives, oppressive herding drills and the overarching shroud of politics. So it has taken really long for both India and Pakistan to agree to open a special border crossing linking Gurdwara Darbar Sahib in Pakistan’s Kartarpur – the final resting place of Guru Nanak Dev – to Dera Baba Nanak shrine in India’s Gurdaspur district. However, given the heightened tension between both neighbours over the Pulwama terror attacks and the Balakot airstrikes, and now Jaish-e-Mohammad chief Masood Azhar protected by a Chinese hold at the UN, the talks to work out the modalities were undoubtedly under a cloud. But as the government has set a new paradigm in counter-terrorism strategies with pre-emptive strikes on terror camps, it has also laid a new template for shared shrines by delinking it completely from diplomacy, categorically saying that this common interest, while allowing people-to-people contact, could in no way be interpreted as a thaw in relations or a resumption of bilateral dialogue. In that sense, it would be just business as usual in helping cross-border families get on with their daily lives like the Samjhauta Express. However, for all the show of bonhomie, there were some glitches too — India wants visa-free access to at least 5,000 pilgrims per day but Pakistan wants a permit issued and a limit on numbers. India also reminded that the spirit of the pilgrimage should be honoured, making Pakistan responsible for any disruptive or militant activity. But overall, the meeting remained cordial with both sides determined to address their domestic constituency and claim the moral high ground.
No matter how hard India may try, the fact is that Pakistan’s encouraging moves on the Kartarpur corridor are not entirely free of politics. Pakistan seized the first mover’s advantage in propaganda by declaring its intention to operationalise it soon after Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh blamed it and the ISI for the grenade attack on a Nirankari gathering near Amritsar. India had no choice but to get into the act immediately before it could assess if it was another attempt by Pakistan to woo the Sikh community, revive the hardline Khalistan sentiment and eventually create unrest in Punjab. Pilgrimages between India and Pakistan are governed by the 1974 Protocol on Visits to Religious Shrines, but Kartarpur being not on that list needs a separate code of engagement, one where both sides will jostle for a say. Besides, India has to be alert that the base camp on the Pakistan side doesn’t become a hotbed for Khalistani propaganda and meetings in the name of allowing faith congregations. Pakistan’s haste in pushing the corridor now after years of dilly-dallying does raise questions about its intentions. The first demand for a visa-free access was made in 1999 by the then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. In 2004, Dr Manmohan Singh suggested a corridor as Prime Minister. On both occasions, there was no positive response from Pakistan. However, the very day Imran Khan took oath as Prime Minister, the message for opening the corridor was conveyed by Pakistan Army Chief Qamar Javed Bajwa to Punjab Minister and Congress leader Navjot Singh Sidhu, knowing full well the latter’s flamboyance and ability to shoot off his mouth, which he did, catching India completely off guard. The “deep state” had succeeded in championing a delicate cause for the Sikhs. And yet again, as General Bajwa stood in Kartarpur, shaking hands with a known Khalistani face, Gopal Singh Chawla, the visual added to our worries. Pakistan could still use this people-to-people contact to pressure India into resuming comprehensive dialogue and appear altruistic and big-hearted in the process. But India cannot afford to let down guard on isolating Pakistan diplomatically over its sponsorship of terror factories that impact us. Kartarpur should remain a matter of faith and not a political tool.