In what could be the first signs of a thaw in India-Pakistan relations that plummeted to a new low two months ago when a meeting of Foreign Ministers was cancelled and positions hardened on both sides, Islamabad responded within hours Thursday to a New Delhi request for a corridor to Kartarpur Sahib, allowing Sikh pilgrims to visit the shrine, the final resting place of Guru Nanak Dev.
At a meeting chaired by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the Union Cabinet approved the proposal to build and develop the Kartarpur corridor from Dera Baba Nanak in Gurdaspur district to the International Border, allowing pilgrims from India to visit Gurdwara Darbar Sahib Kartarpur — it is on the banks of the Ravi in Narowal district of Pakistan Punjab, 3 km from the border — where Guru Nanak Dev spent 18 years.
Within hours, Pakistan Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi said his country had conveyed to India its decision to open the Kartarpur corridor for Guru Nanak’s 550th birth anniversary, and Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan would perform the ground-breaking ceremony on November 28.
Taking to Twitter, Pakistan’s Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry called the “Indian Cabinet endorsement of Pakistan’s proposition on #KartarPurBorderOpening” a “victory of peace lobby in both countries” and a step in the “right direction” which, he said, will “encourage voices of reason and tranquility on both sides of the border”.
Why this low-hanging fruit counts
India had been pressing Pakistan to open the Kartarpur corridor for 19 years but there was no movement beyond grand declarations on either side. New Delhi’s decision to build the corridor on its side is a diplomatic gambit to get Pakistan to walk the talk. Indeed, Pak Army chief Qamar Javed Bajwa had conveyed to Congress leader Navjot Singh Sidhu his country’s willingness to open the corridor. Given the current trust deficit, the cancellation of talks after Imran Khan took charge, and the recent terrorist attack in Punjab, allegedly by Pak-sponsored Khalistan elements, this is an attempt to pick a low-hanging fruit. A small step, forward.
In Chandigarh, the office of the Chief Minister issued a statement: “The President of India, Ram Nath Kovind, and Punjab Chief Minister, Amarinder Singh, will lay the foundation stone for the Kartarpur Corridor at Dera Baba Nanak, Gurdaspur, on November 26 on the Indian side, two days prior to the ground-breaking ceremony of corridor passage already announced by Pakistan.”
The Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) official spokesperson Raveesh Kumar said: “In keeping with the resolution adopted by the Cabinet today to commemorate the 550th birth anniversary of Guru Nanak Devji in 2019, we have approached and urged the Pakistan government to recognise the sentiments of Sikh community and build a corridor with suitable facilities on 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.”
The unexpected forward movement on the Kartarpur corridor issue came three months after Punjab minister Navjot Singh Sidhu sparked a controversy when he hugged Pakistan Army chief Qamar Javed Bajwa during Imran Khan’s swearing-in ceremony — Bajwa was said to have conveyed Pakistan’s willingness to open the Kartarpur corridor. The BJP government, including External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj, had reprimanded Sidhu for his “behaviour” in Pakistan.
On Thursday, Home Minister Rajnath Singh called the Union Cabinet’s approval for the corridor project a “landmark decision”. He tweeted: “The Cabinet approves building and development of Kartarpur corridor from Dera Baba Nanak in Gurdaspur district to International Border. Kartarpur corridor project with all modern amenities and facilities to be implemented with Central Government funding.”
New Delhi, sources said, wants the corridor to be “open 365 days, 24 hours”, and there must be no restriction on the number of pilgrims travelling across the border. It also wants that there must be free and readily available consular access for Indian citizens on the Pakistani side.
“Despite the harassment that pilgrims face on the Pakistani side, with the display of Khalistani posters or through the lack of access to consular officials, Sikh pilgrims continue to make the difficult journey. Our proposal is so that the burden of pilgrims can be eased significantly,” sources said.
Besides building the corridor, the government also plans to install a “high-powered telescope” on the International Border where pilgrims now use binoculars to see the shrine on the other side. Two days ago, after a meeting of the National Implementation Committee, Union Culture Minister Mahesh Sharma announced several initiatives to mark the Guru Nanak Dev’s 550th birth anniversary.
“Our Science and Technology ministry will install a high-powered telescope and a big screen for people on our side of the border to be able to get a darshan (of the gurdwara),” he said. As of now, pilgrims use binoculars from a BSF platform to get a glimpse of the gurdwara.
Meanwhile, Indian diplomats in Pakistan were not allowed to visit Nankana Sahib gurdwara and meet the visiting Sikh pilgrims. While Pakistan has given visas to about 3,800 Indian pilgrims to visit Nankana Sahib, about 2,000 of them are learnt to have gone there. South Block has learnt that posters announcing a Sikh referendum in 2020 — Delhi sees it as a ploy by Pakistan-sponsored Khalistan elements — have also come up at the gurdwara. Sources said the issue is likely to be raised by the Indian side with their Pakistan counterparts.