Standing next to one of the holiest shrines of the Sikh faith, Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan on Wednesday made his strongest pitch for India-Pakistan peace since he came to power in August saying that he, his government, the army and all political parties in Pakistan are “on the same page” to improve ties with India and that all issues, including Kashmir, can be resolved with “strength and will” of the leadership of the two countries.
Khan was speaking after laying the foundation stone for the historic Kartarpur Corridor — 120 km from Lahore — linking two revered gurdwaras on both sides of the border here. “If India takes one step forward then we will take two steps forward toward friendship.”
These remarks come two months after Khan had said that he was disappointed at the arrogant and negative response by India and that he had come across “small men occupying big offices” who don’t see the big picture. This tweet by him had come after India had cancelled the meeting between Foreign Ministers after agreeing to it.
Khan said that whenever he visited India, he was told that politicians are united but the (Pakistan) army won’t allow friendship between the two sides. “I am telling you, the Prime Minister of Pakistan, the ruling party, other political parties and (Pakistan’s) armed forces are on one page…We want to move ahead. We want a civilised relationship with India,” he said.
Saying there have been “mistakes on both sides,” Khan asserted that the two sides should not live in the past. “We will stay stuck this way unless we break the shackles of the past and stop blaming each other,” he said.
With Punjab Minister Navjot Singh Sidhu, Union Ministers Harsimrat Kaur Badal and Hardeep Singh Puri listening, Khan carefully weaved in Kashmir in his speech — New Delhi quickly slammed him for politicising a pious occasion.
Interestingly, none of the Indian leaders present mentioned terrorism as one of the issues between the two countries.
Significantly, Bajwa, who attended the groundbreaking ceremony did not stay for the speeches by the political leaders.
But through the 17-minute speech, Khan, standing inside an air-conditioned tent in a massive field next to the Gurdwara Darbar Sahib in Kartarpur, kept underlining his outreach to India.
“Both countries are nuclear armed. We both have atomic weapons…It is madness for such countries to think (of a war). Only a foolish individual can think one can win a nuclear war,” he said.
He even referenced the animosity between France and Germany, as he said that that these two countries have fought wars in the past, but have broken out of the shackles of the past.
“If France and Germany who fought several wars can live in peace, why can’t India and Pakistan,” the prime minister said in Urdu. “We have just one problem, Kashmir. If man can walk on the moon, what problems are there that we cannot resolve? We only need determined leadership on both sides,” he said.
The Ministry of External Affairs official spokesperson Raveesh Kumar responded sharply, “It is deeply regrettable that the Prime Minister of Pakistan chose to politicise the pious occasion meant to realise the long pending demand of the Sikh community to develop a Kartarpur corridor by making unwarranted reference to Jammu and Kashmir which is an integral and inalienable part of India.”
“Pakistan is reminded that it must fulfil its international obligations and take effective and credible action to stop providing shelter and all kind of support to cross border terrorism from territories under its control.”
While the sharp exchange of words took place between Delhi and Islamabad, on the ground, metres away from the historic Gurdwara, Sidhu was the star of the occasion. The cricketer-commentator-comedian turned politician charmed the audience by praising Khan for the corridor initiative.
Sidhu, who called Khan his “yaar” (friend), said that when the history of Kartarpur is written, Khan’s name will be written on the first page.
Sidhu pitched for trade and transit through Pakistan when he talked about sending vegetables and fruits from India and Pakistan to Brussels and Moscow.
Badal, who became emotional during her speech, called it a “peace corridor”. She also mentioned that when Berlin Wall can come down, history can be made here as well. She was echoing what Prime Minister Narendra Modi had said at her residence during Gurupurab celebrations last week to convey the potentially transformative nature of the move.
At the Kartarpur corridor ceremony, there were placards and videos about the plans to transform the place with facilities.
Pilgrims Sukhdev Singh and his wife Lakhvinder Kaur from Amritsar who attended the event, praised the move and said that this will help in them coming again.
The much-awaited corridor will connect Darbar Sahib in Pakistan’s Kartarpur, the final resting place of Sikh faith’s founder Guru Nanak Dev, with Dera Baba Nanak shrine in India’s Gurdaspur district and facilitate visa-free movement of Indian Sikh pilgrims who will have to just obtain a permit to visit Kartarpur.
Kartarpur Sahib in Pakistan is located across the river Ravi, about 4 km from the Dera Baba Nanak shrine. It was established in 1522 by Guru Nanak Dev who is believed to have spent 18 years here. The first Gurdwara, Gurdwara Kartarpur Sahib, was built here, where Guru Nanak is said to have died.
Addressing pilgrims at the venue, Khan said: “The happiness I see in you today, if I were to explain to my Muslim brothers and sisters, is that imagine that you are standing 4 km outside Medina (a city in Saudi Arabia where the Prophet is buried) and cannot go in, and you are then given the chance to go. That is the happiness I see here.”
He assured the Sikh community that facilities at Kartarpur Sahib will be even better for the 550th birth celebrations for Guru Nanak Dev next year.
Pakistan Army spokesperson Maj Gen Asif Ghafoor tweeted Bajwa’s comments: “It’s a step towards peace which our region needs. Barbed wire at borders is measure by a sovereign state to check or deny illegal crossings. Corridors & Gates are for legal peaceful visitors. So is the case for all our neighbours.”