21.11.2019 Author: Vladimir Terehov

On the Opening of the Kartarpur Corridor


An event took place on November 9 this year in a place of great local significance on the Indo-Pakistani border, which could be viewed as the first glimmer of light (albeit still very weak), in what have otherwise been gloomy relations thus far between India and Pakistan. We must remember that both of these states have nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them.

Before moving on, it should be noted that ever since both countries gained independence in 1947, India and Pakistan have not been on good terms, and have never been seen to have positive relations before. In the first 25 years after gaining independence, three “full-fledged” wars were fought between them, and there was also the three-month long “armed conflict” in the Himalayan “Kargil district”, also known as the Kargil War (in the summer of 1998). By the time the Kargil War broke out, both countries already had nuclear weapons, which set the major world power’s nerves on edge.

There was a brief eruption of violence between both countries in early 2019 following the large-scale terrorist attack carried out on February 14 this year in the city of Pulwama in the Pulwama district, part of what was once the northern Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir and now two union territories of India. The Balakot airstrike and India-Pakistan standoff that followed almost escalated into something similar to the “Kargil conflict.” That is not to mention all of the other hundreds and thousands of “armed incidents” that take place every year on the territory of both the Indian part of Kashmir and along the cross-border strip.

However, India and Pakistan are not separated by an internationally recognized border in Kashmir, but by the so-called “Line of Control” (stretching almost 750 kilometers), which is where the armies of both countries stopped advancing at the end of the Indo-Pakistani War of 1947–1948.

Bilateral relations had been wounded by the 2019 Pulwama attack, and the wounds had barely begun to heal when relations were dealt another heavy blow when Article 370 of the Constitution of India was almost entirely revoked, which had allowed the (now former) state of Jammu and Kashmir a certain amount of autonomy. The former state was then further divided into two “union territories”, an administrative status with less autonomy.

The situation escalated to near breaking point again, and yet again, India and Pakistan reminded each other that they both have nuclear weapons.

In this seemingly bottomless political abyss, a weak ray of light shone through the darkness less than three weeks later (on August 23), when Pakistani Minister of Foreign Affairs Shah Mahmood Qureshi announced that Pakistan was prepared to open up the so-called “Kartarpur Corridor” to let Indian Sikhs make the pilgrimage to Kartarpur, a city in the Pakistani province of Punjab located 7-8 km from the border with the Indian state of Punjab.

This statement was a sign that the process of sending out peacekeeping signals had resumed, which Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan has been sending India’s way since he came to power in summer 2018.

The fact is that Kartarpur is where Guru Nanak is said to have died (Guru Nanak is the founder of Sikhism, a unique religion that developed in the 15th century), and there is a temple complex dedicated to him there. It is the second most important religious site for Sikhs, a global religious community of about 20 million people, after their most sacred shrine, the Golden Temple in the Indian Punjab state (located in the city of Amritsar).

After the collapse of the British Empire and the decolonization of “British India”, Kartarpur became a part of Pakistan, and visiting the city has been a seriously complicated problem for Indian Sikhs over the 70 years that followed. November 12 this year is believed to mark the 550th anniversary of the birth of Sikh founder Guru Nanak, and visiting the site where he was laid to rest is an important way for Sikhs to show their devotion to the faith.

It should be noted that constructing this type of corridor is no simple task in organizational and technical terms, because the necessary conditions (roads, transport, hotels, security problems) need to be put in place to accommodate thousands of citizens coming into the country from a hostile state.

Last autumn, India’s Foreign Minister at the time, Sushma Swaraj, was invited to visit Pakistan in order to perform a symbolic gesture and “lay the foundation stone” for the corridor. The invitation was declined (under the pretext of Pakistan’s support for terrorism in Kashmir), and it would seem that the events of 2019 have taken the whole idea of a Kartarpur Corridor off the agenda for Pakistani-Indian relations.

The highly unexpected invitation made by the Pakistani Foreign Minister apparently caused a great deal of confusion on the Indian side. At the end of September, the Pakistani Foreign Ministry landed a targeted fencing attack by inviting Narendra Modi’s predecessor, former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh (from the opposition Indian National Congress Party), to the opening ceremony for the Kartarpur Corridor.

It was out of the question to put obstacles in the way of India’s former Prime Minister (the first Sikh in office), and the Indian government was left with the only option – to lead through the inevitable. It was announced in early October that Prime Minister Narendra Modi would be taking part in the inaugural ceremony of the Kartarpur Corridor.

A day before this event took place (on November 8), Pakistani Minister of Foreign Affairs Shah Mahmood Qureshi said that for the first 4 days, from 9 to 12 November, pilgrims (up to 5,000 daily) would not have to pay the service fee to visit (about $20 per person). The transport route itself has been dubbed the “corridor of love” which does not have any sinister aim of encouraging Sikh separatism in India.

It should be noted that the opening of the Kartarpur Corridor has led to the very timely appearance of at least a small glimmer of hope in relations between India and Pakistan, as internal problems have sharply worsened in both countries.

In India, farmers have been voicing serious disappointment with the government policies being made by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party in recent months. Narendra Modi took the decision in early November this year to pull India out of the ASEAN+6 project (RCEP), which was supposed to become the world’s largest free trade zone, mainly due to fears that entering this free trade zone could aggravate the situation in the agricultural sector of India’s economy even further.

Three weeks after Legislative Assembly elections held in two states, one of them was still unable to from a government (the State of Maharashtra — the 7th largest of India’s 28 states in terms of its population). Despite the fact that the BJP together with the far-right Shiv Sena Hindu nationalist political organization have suffered losses (mainly in the villages), they still won the elections. Discord has crept up in relations between these recent political allies. One of the obvious reasons for this has been Shiv Sena’s disagreement with the government’s agricultural policy.

The day set for the inauguration of the Kartarpur Corridor (November 9) happened to coincide with the day the Supreme Court gave its verdict on the ownership of a hectare of land on top of a sacred hill for Hindus and Muslims in the town of Ayodhya, located in the northeastern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. The background leading up to the Ayodhya verdict itself and possible consequences it could have also need to be looked at separately.

Within the scope of this article, we can only note that potentially explosive problems could arise from this verdict. It is unclear how the most active factions of both the Hindu and Muslim communities will react. The informal community leaders and Modi’s central government made an appeal to people before the judgment was given by India’s top court “to maintain peace and harmony after this landmark verdict.”

The domestic political situation in Pakistan does not look much better than India’s, where an ongoing power struggle between several political clans escalated dramatically in late October and early November. All the main opposition parties to Imran Khan’s government united in protest with the “Freedom March”, who marched fifteen hundred kilometers from Karachi to the Islamabad, the Pakistani capital.

Experts have also observed that the boomerang effect is growing stronger in Pakistan following the introduction by the local intelligence services of clerical elements in the form of the (illegal in Russia) Taliban movement in the struggle of the Pashtuns (they had initially fought against Soviet troops) for statehood in neighboring Afghanistan. A “Talibanization” of the country is currently being observed in Pakistan.

Overall, the two heavyweight states of South Asia both have work to do on the domestic front, which gives them a reason to gradually ease the decades of fruitless and extremely costly mutual confrontation on the subcontinent.

Let us hope that opening the Kartarpur Corridor will mark the beginning of a badly-needed positive process.

Vladimir Terekhov, expert on the issues of the Asia-Pacific region, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.