Kartarpur corridor: Political expediency is forcing India into an epic blunder and handing Pakistan tactical leverage

India has taken a big gamble on the Kartarpur corridor. Beyond immediate political expediency, the long-term benefit of this move is questionable at best, but it provides Pakistan with a vital leverage against India that is aligned to religious sentiments. It is very rosy to think of India-Pakistan cooperation over Kartarpur as the dawn of a "new thaw" in bilateral ties, but grander outreaches in the past have fallen prey to Pakistan’s betrayals.

One wonders if the Union Cabinet thought this through before taking the bait. It would be a shame if domestic political considerations lead to a permanent strategic vulnerability. It may seem strange at this point to raise these fears when hype over it has reached a crescendo, politicians in both nations are scrambling to claim credit and even Prime Minister Narendra Modi has compared the development to the fall of the Berlin Wall to stress on the magnitude of the decision. Yet, given Pakistan’s history of perfidy, duplicitous behaviour and incurable fantasies of “getting even” with India, only the most die-hard optimist will rule out Rawalpindi’s use of the proposed visa-free corridor as the means of achieving geopolitical ends.

The Gurudwara Kartarpur Sahib. News18

The Gurudwara Darbar Sahib Kartarpur. File image. News18

The shrine at Gurdwara Darbar Sahib Kartarpur in Pakistan, roughly 3 kilometres from the International Border, is among the holiest of holy sites for followers of Sikhism who believe it to be the final resting place for Guru Nanak Dev, the founder of the Sikh religion.

On Thursday, the Union Cabinet approved the developing of a visa-free corridor from Dera Baba Nanak village in Punjab’s Gurdaspur district to the Indian side of the international border and urged Pakistan to reciprocate.

India also requested Pakistan to make available all necessary facilities for Sikh pilgrims all through the year.

A statement released on Thursday by the Ministry of External Affairs stated that “in keeping with the resolution adopted by the Cabinet today to commemorate the 550th birth anniversary of Guru Nanak Dev ji in 2019, we have approached and urged the Pakistan government to recognize the sentiments of Sikh community and build a corridor with suitable facilities in their territory to facilitate easy and smooth visits of pilgrims from India to Kartarpur Sahib throughout the year. Government of India has already decided to build the corridor from Dera Baba Nanak to the International Border with all modern amenities on our side.”

Within hours of India’s announcement, the Imran Khan government responded that it will open the corridor — allowing Indian pilgrims to visit the shrine that lies on the banks of river Ravi and went to Pakistan after the Partition. Shah Mahmood Qureshi, the Pakistani foreign minister, reportedly claimed that Islamabad’s decision has been conveyed to India, and that Khan would perform the ground-breaking ceremony on 28 November. The call for a visa-free Kartarpur Sahib corridor is an old, strong, persistent demand from the Sikh community. The move was mooted first during Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s bus ride to Lahore in 1999. India claims that the two-decade old request has since been lying pending with Pakistan.

The Kartarpur corridor is a sensitive issue among the Sikh community. It is easy to see why the political class sees it as a low-hanging fruit ahead of general elections. For the ruling party at the Centre, the corridor has the added lure of introducing a modicum of stability in bilateral ties. A relatively peaceful border will be one less distraction for Modi.

The problem with this leap of faith, however, is that India has once again mixed up its signals and is committing the same mistake of trusting Pakistan’s words when intentions speak otherwise. It reveals volumes about India’s Pakistan policy — or the lack of it — that we remain trapped within the same "outreach-outrage" cycle and cannot go beyond impulsive and episodic gestures. India’s inconsistency on Pakistan not only damages bilateral ties, but also diminishes New Delhi’s credibility as a key actor in the Indo-Pacific region.

The recent somersault over talking to Pakistan on the sidelines of UN General Assembly notwithstanding, if state-sponsored terrorism is the stated reason behind India’s policy of “not talking to Pakistan” and putting ties in cold storage, has there been any recent reason to reverse the decision?

If anything, this is the worst time for the Kartarpur gesture, given the strong indications that have emerged of Pakistan trying to reopen India’s Khalistani wound and targeting Punjab as the next front for undermining India’s sovereignty after Kashmir.

Bikramjit Singh, one of the alleged bike-borne terrorists in the Amritsar grenade attack, has reportedly revealed how he and his partner carried out the blast at the Nirankari Bhawan Complex under instructions by Pakistan’s ISI-backed Khalistani forces.

Punjab chief minister Captain Amarinder Singh has declared in a news conference that the grenade used for Sunday’s attack in Amritsar that killed three people was made in Pakistan. He called it a “pure case of terrorism” carried out by the ISI.

Will the Modi government be able to explain whether these terror attacks provide the right atmosphere for a thaw in bilateral ties? If not, what was the hurry behind the Kartarpur outreach?

Ironically, the Union Cabinet decision on the Kartarpur Sahib corridor came on the same day that the MEA issued a strongly-worded release against Pakistan’s move to harass Indian diplomats and deny them consular access to Indian Sikh pilgrims who are visiting the holy shrines in Pakistan.

The release stated: “India has today (Thursday) lodged a strong protest with the Government of Pakistan that despite having been granted prior travel permission by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Pakistan, the Consular officials of the High Commission of India in Islamabad were harassed and denied access on 21 November and 22 November 2018 at Gurudwara Nankana Sahib and Gurudwara Sacha Sauda to the Indian pilgrims visiting Pakistan under the Bilateral Protocol. As a result of such harassment they were compelled to return to Islamabad without performing their diplomatic and consular duties vis-a-vis Indian pilgrims.”

The release also expressed India’s “grave concern” at Pakistan provoking Khalistani separatism by greeting the Sikh pilgrims with secessionist posters and insignia. India called it an attempt to “incite communal disharmony and intolerance and promote secessionist tendencies with the objective of undermining India’s sovereignty and territorial integrity” and called upon Islamabad “to take all measures to not allow its territory to be used for any hostile propaganda and support for secessionist tendencies against India in keeping with the commitments made under the Simla Agreement, 1972 and endorsed in the Lahore Declaration, 1999.”

Finally, in an act of stupendous insensitivity, President Ram Nath Kovind and Captain Amarinder Singh are slated to lay the foundation stone for the Kartarpur Corridor at Dera Baba Nanak, Gurdaspur, on 26 November on the Indian side. Either the decision-makers have not noticed the coincidence with the anniversary of the 26/11 terror attacks, or worse, they don’t care.

But beyond these symbolisms, the Kartarpur corridor may also become a strategic vulnerability that Pakistan may use to its advantage knowing well that India cannot take a step back from it in the event of yet another major terror attack without hurting Sikh sentiments. As an editorial in The Times of India correctly states, Pakistan could, “for example, ratchet up terror attacks in India while holding the Kartarpur corridor hostage to its definition of Indian ‘good behaviour’.”

The only inevitable conclusion that emerges from the Kartarpur outreach is this: political expediency runs supreme to every other consideration, including India’s strategic interests. Not a good advertisement for a "nationalist government".

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Updated Date: Nov 24, 2018 17:46:33 IST

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