It is too early to say that India-Pakistan ties are on the mend following announcements from both sides that they will start developing a visa-free corridor from the Indian border village of Dera Baba Nanak across the border to Gurdwara Kartarpur Sahib, a shrine built at the place where the founder of the Sikh religion, Guru Nanak Dev, is believed to have died. For one, the two sides will need to meet and discuss the modalities. As of now, leaders of the two countries appear to have acted independently of each other as they competed to announce help for the Sikhs to visit the shrine. At some point, they have to nail down the details: Is it to be opened only for special occasions, or will it give pilgrims access all year round permanently? Will the traffic of pilgrims be regulated? Can individuals visit, or do pilgrims have to be part of jathas? How long will they be allowed to stay? India and Pakistan entered into an agreement on pilgrimages in 1974 under which both sides issue visitor visas for a handful of shrines on either side. The visa-free corridor is only for Indians. But it will require a separate agreement for operationalisation, which will involve complex negotiations given the security ramifications.
Yet the proposed corridor holds great potential for a wider thaw in India-Pakistan relations, which have languished in sub-zero temperatures for a full decade now since the Mumbai 26/11 terror attacks by Pakistani men trained by the Lashkar-e-Toiba. The significance of the Kartarpur Corridor is that the demand for it from the Sikh community was so great that neither side wanted to be seen as opposing it. This is probably the first instance of the two sides setting aside mutual hostility to bend to the will of the people. True, it might not have come this far had each not seen some benefit to itself — for Pakistan, brownie points from the Sikh community which it has wooed for its own geopolitical reasons since the 1980s; for the Indian government, the hope of political gain in election season from a significant minority. But this should not take away from the huge symbolism of the proposal for two countries that have been unable to resolve any question, big or small, that dogs bilateral relations.
Now, India should build on the leap of faith that it took on the Kartarpur corridor. For starters, both countries must relax visa norms so that there is more people-to-people interaction across the border. An agreement for this already exists since 2012. All that needs to be done is to implement it. A large part of the failure of the two countries to come out of the holes into which they have dug themselves owes to the vacuum created in citizen interaction. It is time to undo that.