Kartarpur Corridor unlikely to be affected by India-Pakistan tensions: Cost of cancellation too high for both countries

  • On Friday, India and Pakistan held a technical meeting at the Zero Point on the opening of the Kartarpur Corridor

  • Both countries are discussing the modalities regarding opening of the corridor at Narowal on the occasion of 550th birth anniversary of Guru Nanak on 12 November

  • Both countries will be acutely aware that the Sikh community has viewed access to Kartarpur Sahib as a religious matter and not one of a geopolitical nature

Even as most other connections between India and Pakistan, not limited to bilateral trade and over diplomatic relations — as opposed to back-channel discussions — have been suspended or put on the back burner for the moment, there still appears to be movement on the Kartarpur Corridor.

Earlier today, India and Pakistan held a technical meeting at the Zero Point on the opening of the Kartarpur Corridor. The meeting, comprising a group of 15 officials from each side, was the first bilateral meeting after India had on 5 August revoked Article 370 of the Constitution, which gave special status to Jammu and Kashmir and bifurcated the state into Union Territories.

The Kartarpur Corridor, it may be recalled, is envisioned as a route by which to connect Darbar Sahib in Pakistan's Kartarpur with Dera Baba Nanak shrine in Gurdaspur district and facilitate visa-free movement of Indian Sikh pilgrims, who will have to just obtain a permit to visit Kartarpur Sahib, which was established in 1522 by Guru Nanak Dev.

In his weekly briefing on Thursday, Pakistan's Foreign Office spokesperson Dr Mohammad Faisal had said, "India concurred with Pakistan’s proposal and the technical meeting on Kartarpur Sahib Corridor is being held on 30 August at Zero Point. Pakistan remains committed to complete and inaugurate the Kartarpur Sahib Corridor as announced by our prime minister and as planned."

Both countries are discussing the modalities regarding the opening of the corridor at Narowal, some 125 kilometres from Lahore, for Indian Sikhs on the occasion of 550th birth anniversary of Guru Nanak on 12 November. However, considering the volley of statements emerging out of Pakistan, it might seem as though achieving this deadline could be something of a pipe dream for both sides. Nevertheless, a closer look is required to gauge the actual situation.

But first, a bit of background

 Kartarpur Corridor unlikely to be affected by India-Pakistan tensions: Cost of cancellation too high for both countries

File image of Gurudwara Kartarpur Sahib. News18

In the week that India announced the abrogation of Article 370, Faisal told media persons in attendance at his weekly briefing, "Notwithstanding the latest developments, Pakistan's Kartarpur initiative shall continue. Pakistan respects all religions and would continue the project." It was also in this particular briefing that the spokesperson described India's move as "draconian new restrictions on freedoms of expression, assembly, and travel".

In the fortnight since, Pakistan has neither wasted many opportunities nor held back too many of its officials from issuing bold, confrontational and sometimes confusing remarks against India.

Thursday's media briefing by the spokesperson is a good starting point that went some way in betraying Pakistan's own apparent confusion about the whole issue, with Faisal claiming, "The Indian hypocrisy is evident in its oscillating comments. On the one hand, it says that [Jammu and Kashmir] is an internal matter of India, on the other it states that it would discuss it bilaterally with Pakistan. Previously it used to say that Jammu and Kashmir dispute is a multilateral issue. There is no consistency or principle involved in the Indian position."

Obfuscation and conflation wasn't unique to the spokesperson with Prime Minister Imran Khan taking the rhetoric to a new level. He claimed a couple of weeks ago, "India has been captured, as Germany had been captured by Nazis, by a fascist, racist Hindu Supremacist ideology and leadership". In a series of tweets (see here, here and here), the prime minister continued, "[T]he threat also extends to Pakistan, the minorities in India and in fact the very fabric of Nehru and Gandhi's India. One can simply Google to understand the link between the Nazi ideology and ethnic cleansing and genocide ideology of the RSS-BJP founding fathers... World must take note as this genie is out of the bottle and the doctrine of hate and genocide, with RSS goons on the rampage, will spread unless the international community acts now to stop it... World must also seriously consider the safety and security of India's nuclear arsenal in the control of the fascist, racist Hindu supremacist [Narendra] Modi government."

Taking his cue, Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi launched his own volleys of invective in a bid to both delegitimise India's actions in its northern-most state as also to reinforce his own country's apparent support to Kashmir and its citizens. Meanwhile, Human Rights Minister Shireen Mazari also weighed in with the Third Reich comparisons and calls to the international community to condemn India's actions. While the list of incensed Pakistanis goes on, the country hasn't limited itself to mere condemnation.

Having expelled Indian High Commissioner Ajay Bisaria — the most visible aspect of the downgrade of diplomatic relations, suspended trade with India and put a halt on cross-border train and bus services, Pakistan continues to threaten India with the closure of its airspace. Further, it was on Thursday that Pakistan Armed Forces spokesperson Major General Asif Ghafoor announced the successful test-firing of surface-to-surface ballistic missile Ghaznavi, which he claimed is capable of delivering 'multiple types of warheads upto 290 kilometres'.

So what does all this mean for the Kartarpur Corridor?

Not a lot, is the likely short answer to this query.

It was back in November last year that Khan launched the project to link Kartarpur and Gurdaspur in the presence of former Indian cricketer and then Punjab cabinet minister Navjot Singh Sidhu. Hugs were exchanged, as were pleasantries — both of which drew ire in India. Nevertheless, since then, both sides have been working on the corridor with India looking at a 30 September deadline to complete construction on its side. Another report indicates that India has already put in place an Rs 500-crore structure, while Pakistan has invested nearly Rs 100 crore in the project. But the financial pinch — if the figures are accurate — of cancellation, while significant, is unlikely to be the most compelling factor for both sides to stay on course with the Kartarpur Corridor.

For the Indian government, cancelling the project will result in disenchantment among the Sikh community in India and abroad. Such a move will provide further fuel to the fire of Khalistani groups, particularly those abroad, who have constantly expressed their distrust in India's ability to take care of the Sikh community. Additionally, the BJP realises it is not in power in the state of Punjab and that making good on the promise of the corridor is one of the few ways in which it can appease the community.

On the other hand, the Pakistani government — particularly after the "Pakistan respects all religions" remark issued by its Foreign Office spokesperson — seeks to be viewed as the region's voice of reason in the narrative it is constructing vis-à-vis India's supposed descent into Nazi politics. Going back on its commitment to the corridor will dilute Khan and his Cabinet's claims to that aforementioned respect. Beyond that, if Pakistan is seen to be the one walking out of the arrangement, it will likely risk losing the support of international Khalistani lobbies.

Both countries will also be acutely aware that the Sikh community has viewed access to Kartarpur Sahib as a religious matter and not one of a geopolitical nature. Ergo, the government that pulls out of the arrangement will be seen to be politicising the issue and could lose the trust of the community.

At the end of the day, what we're left with is a staring contest, in which neither side will want to blink first for fear of the consequences, foreign and domestic. The Kartarpur Corridor, therefore, is unlikely to be affected by ramped-up India-Pakistan tensions.

With inputs from PTI

Updated Date: Aug 30, 2019 13:25:19 IST