We have already reported earlier that the victory of the Movement for Justice party, headed by the current Prime Minister Imran Khan, in the parliamentary elections in Pakistan at the end of June of this year added a glimmer of hope to the prospects of India–Pakistan relations. Imran Khan’s election campaign rhetoric had given rise to such hopes.
However, a series of events that followed once again illustrated that between pre-election speeches and a final resolution of lingering political issues lies a long path with many obstacles. By autumn, it seemed as if the India–Pakistan relations had come full circle and would stay this way for quite some time.
However, in the second half of November, Pakistani leadership introduced two new initiatives to reach out to India. Firstly, an invitation to attend the upcoming SAARC summit (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation with 8 member-nations) was sent to the Prime Minister Narendra Modi via the Pakistani Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Secondly, India’s Minister of External Affairs, Sushma Swaraj, was invited to Pakistan for the ceremony to celebrate the start of work on the so-called Kartarpur Corridor. Further clarification is necessary at this stage.
If you go to the SAARC website, in the sub-section “Summits” you can find out the dates and locations of all the SAARC summits held since the association’s inception in 1985. And it turns out the last (18th) event took place in November 2014, in the capital of Nepal, Kathmandu. But according to this website, such summits should be held at least once in two years. So what happened in the year 2016?
In India, and probably also in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan and Sri Lanka, the answer to this question is “Nothing happened.” But in Pakistan and two other SAARC member-nations, the response is “Something did happen.” More specifically, the 19th SAARC summit (despite facing sabotage from the five previously mentioned nations) did take place in Islamabad. But clearly it was attended by far fewer nations.
Hence, nowadays there are discussion in Pakistan about hosting the upcoming 20th SAARC summit (with all member-nations in attendance) in Islamabad after the customary two-year break. This is unlikely to happen by the end of 2018, but hosting it in March 2019 is a distinct possibility.
The summit is a good opportunity to finally discuss all the issues plaguing the relationship between these two quite prominent Asian nations. However, as in Kathmandu in 2014, Narendra Modi has refused to go to Pakistan so as to participate in the SAARC summit.
As for the invitation to the groundbreaking ceremony of the “corridor”, mentioned earlier, it is essential to clarify that Kartarpur is a commune in the Pakistani province of Punjab, and is located 7-8 km away from the border with the Indian state of Punjab. Kartarpur is home to a temple (a Gurdwara) which was built on the site where the founder of Sikhism (a religion born in the 15th century), Guru Nanak, died. At present there are approximately 20 million Sikhs in the world. Most of them live in the Indian state of Punjab, where the most important place of religious worship for Sikhs, i.e. the Golden Temple, is located in Amritsar. The Gurdwara in Kartarpur is also considered to be a holy place by Sikhs. It is and has always been a pilgrimage site. After the partition of “British India” into two nations, Kartarpur became a part of Pakistan. In the following 70 years, the infamously problematic state of the India-Pakistan relations made it more difficult for Sikhs from India to visit Kartarpur.
There have been discussions about finding a solution to this issue for quite some time. But considering the fact that the bilateral relationship is suffering from more serious “injuries”, neither New Delhi nor Islamabad had the time for this minor issue.
Everything seems to indicate that the new Prime Minister of Pakistan, who introduced the initiative to create the Kartarpur Corridor, is genuinely looking for ways to drastically improve the relationship with his great neighbor by taking advantage of every available opportunity. He has also demonstrated willingness to bear substantial costs for creating necessary facilities: transport for many thousands of pilgrims, hotels for them, and a 800-meter bridge over the river that flows through the site.
India’s response to the second proposal from Pakistan was not as unambiguously and sharply negative as to the first. Prime Minister Narendra Modi welcomed the initiative itself, comparing it, in importance, to the fall of the Berlin Wall.
After all, the resolution of an extremely important issue for a part of his own nation is at stake here. And at a time (and in conditions), when the battle has in fact already started (and is intensifying) in the run up to the upcoming general parliamentary elections, to be held next spring.
It is worth noting that the relationship between the previously mentioned part of the population and the central government (of the British Raj as well as the current Republic of India) has always been quite complex. Without going into too much detail, I would like to talk about only two facts. Firstly, in 1919, Sikhs were fired at by the British colonial troops in the Golden Temple. Secondly, in summer of 1984, Indian troops committed the same act, and again in the Golden Temple.
The second incident cost the life of the then Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, who was shot dead in October of the same year by her own Sikh bodyguards. This led to numerous bloody confrontations for many years to come between Hindus and Sikhs, and consequences of these (e.g. legal in nature) are still being felt.
Hence, in the “keen” intent, shown by Pakistan to engage in an initiative to ease Sikh religious life, one may discern a desire to “prick” its regional political opponent with a “pin”. But one must not forget that the tragedy, which unfolded during the collapse of the British Raj (that led to the death of at least 1 million people), stemmed, mainly, from the conflict between Sikhs and Muslims.
Hence, it is probably not worthwhile to seek malign intent within the initiative mentioned earlier. And the invitation, extended to the head of India’s Ministry of External Affairs Sushma Swaraj, to the symbolic groundbreaking ceremony, dedicated to the Kartarpur corridor, stemmed from a sincere desire to discuss key issues facing the bilateral ties. Unfortunately, the two lower level ministers from India’s central government, who attended the ceremony, did not have the authority to hold such discussions.
Having accused Pakistani leadership of feigning goodwill, Sushma Swaraj once again declined to meet with her Pakistani colleague. She used acts of terrorism, which continue to plague India and apparently receive “covert support” from Pakistan, as an excuse not to attend the ceremony. These attacks happen mainly in the state of Jammu and Kashmir, but not only.
Imran Khan announced his initiatives on the 10-year anniversary of the bloody act of terrorism in Mumbai, which resulted in 175 deaths and approximately 300 injured. The culprits behind this attack, as is thought in India, still remain unpunished (as they deserve to be) and, to make matters worse, continue to operate in Pakistan freely.
Without in any way attempting to discuss the question of who is responsible for the tensions in the India-Pakistan relations, which are of crucial importance to the South Asian region, we would simply like to note that without direct negotiations between authorized parties from both nations, it will be impossible to resolve the outstanding issues between them.
A refusal by India to invite Pakistan to an international meeting, attended by heads of customs from more than 20 Asian nations and held in New Delhi from 4 to 5 December, once again illustrates the poor state of their bilateral ties.
This clearly is not, by any means, conducive to the creation of a much needed environment of trust in the entire region of the Indian and Pacific Oceans, which is where the epicenter of the global political game is shifting to.
Vladimir Terekhov, expert on the issues of the Asia-Pacific region, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.