The Kartarpur Sahib Corridor, which has materialised against all odds, is a political enigma. Some see it as a ray of hope amidst the darkness that has enveloped India-Pakistan ties. For others, it is very much part of the problem that afflicts the bilateral relationship. The divergence cuts across the political divide.
For former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, the corridor could be a harbinger of improved relations between Delhi and Islamabad. But his party colleague and chief minister of Punjab, Amarinder Singh, had consistently drawn attention to the possibility that the initiative is part of Pakistan’s longstanding interest in stoking Sikh separatism.
On its part, Delhi has extended strong support to the construction of the four-kilometre corridor connecting Dera Baba Nanak on the Indian side and Gurudwara Darbar Sahib at Kartarpur across the border. But there is no hiding the wariness in the Indian security establishment about Pakistan’s sudden enthusiasm for the corridor that it was unwilling to consider in the past.
In Pakistan, too, differences have been manifest. Although Prime Minister Imran Khan and the Army have both been eager to promote the corridor, the differences between them have been open. The Army, for example, contradicted Khan’s affirmation that Sikh pilgrims can enter through the border without passports. Many Islamic leaders in Pakistan have criticised the corridor as a violation of the nation’s sovereignty.
Despite many critical voices on either side and some difficult negotiations between Delhi and Islamabad, the corridor is now open. Even as the world welcomes it, there is no escaping the fact that the corridor is a remarkable exception to the current dynamic between India and Pakistan.
There is no formal dialogue between the two countries for quite some time now. Nor is there any speculation about a back-channel dialogue that is sustaining a minimum level of communication between the two leaderships. Political and military tensions are running high since the Pulwama terror attack in February, India’s bombing of the Balakot terror training camp in response, the skirmish between the two air forces that followed, and Pakistan’s angry reaction to India’s decision to change the constitutional status of Jammu and Kashmir.
While the Pakistan army’s motivation in pushing for the corridor will continue to be debated, it is important to note an unintended consequence of the initiative. The corridor has drawn attention to an important but neglected dimension of the relations between Delhi and Islamabad-the Punjab question.
The Kashmir issue has long dominated the regional framing of India-Pakistan relations within the Subcontinent and beyond. The intractable nature of the dispute casts a pessimistic shadow over the region. But Punjab, in recent years at least, has often shown the possibilities for potentially transformative breakthroughs in bilateral relations.
Unlike Kashmir, which is a loose collection of cantons that came together accidentally, Punjab is a coherent geographic and civilisational space. If the diverse regions of Kashmir have been marginal to the geopolitical evolution of the Subcontinent until the middle of the 20th century, Punjab has been very central to the ebb and flow of Indian history through the ages.
In contrast to Jammu and Kashmir, there is shared ethnic, linguistic and cultural identity that binds the people of Punjab. This shared identity has indeed survived the unspeakable tragedies that Partition inflicted upon the province. It is the cultural bond as well as the shared sorrow that makes the region most eager in the Subcontinent for a reconciliation between India and Pakistan.
While some in Rawalpindi might want to turn the Kartarpur corridor into the Khalistan card, Delhi must focus on the possibility of strengthening what unites the people of the province — the idea of Punjabiyat. Since the late 1990s, the governments led by Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh in Delhi, as well as the Congress and Akali governments — led respectively by Amarinder Singh and Parkash Singh Badal, have actively sought to develop economic and cultural cooperation across the Radcliffe Line that divides the two Punjabs.
There were moments in the last two decades when these initiatives appeared very close to fruition. The plans included the expansion of the scope of overland trade at the Attari-Wagah border, facilitating hydrocarbon and electricity exports from the Indian Punjab to Pakistan and expanding cultural contacts.
That Rawalpindi seemed to pull the plug each time might suggest that the prospects to advance cooperation between the two Punjabs is limited. Even as he lauds the corridor as a new beginning in bilateral relations, Khan insists that the resolution of Kashmir is critical for normalisation of bilateral relations between the two countries.
But, the fact that the Kartarpur corridor has been realised despite Pakistan’s traditional logic on the relationship with India, should encourage Delhi to reconsider initiatives to promote cooperation across the Radcliffe Line. Even more important, Delhi must look beyond the formal dialogue with Islamabad and the para diplomacy between Chandigarh and Lahore.
Delhi should recognise that the footprint of Punjab and its people goes beyond India and Pakistan — it has significant influence in many parts of the world. Prime Minister Narendra Modi could add a new layer to his diaspora diplomacy if he promotes the celebration of ‘Punjabiyat’. That might help transcend the Kartarpur exception, facilitate the long-overdue collective reflection on what binds us together in the Subcontinent and how we might overcome our current divisions.
This article first appeared in the print edition on November 12, 2019 under the title ‘Going beyond Kartarpur’. The writer is director, Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore and contributing editor on international affairs for The Indian Express.
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