The inauguration of the visa-free Kartarpur Corridor at one of the India-Pakistan border crossings only took place a month ago on November 9. We have not even had enough time for a cautious celebration, but there already seems to have been some truth in the sneaking suspicion that “something is still not quite right here”.
A month earlier, it would have been better if the focus had not only been what Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi said about his country having no sinister intention to “promote separatism” in the Indian Punjab (through the Kartarpur Corridor). More attention should have been paid to what else was going on in Pakistan, but who would have wanted to cast a shadow over this positive development in bilateral relations between India and Pakistan? It is practically the only one there has been over the last few decades.
Alas, three weeks have passed since the official inauguration of the “Kartarpur Corridor” was celebrated, and in reality, the shadow is in plain view. Before we move on to look at how this shadow has manifested itself, we need to stop for a moment to consider the substance of the remark made by Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi.
The Pakistani Minister was referring to one of India’s many serious domestic problems, which one might call India’s “Sikh separatism” issue. However, this issue could potentially spread to parts of Pakistan.
Sikhs, who practice the unique religion of “Sikhism” (there are about 20 million Sikhs in the world), have been demanding the right to form their own independent state called Khalistan, or “Land of the Pure.” The Sikhs have caused a great deal of unrest, which both the former British Colonial Government and the modern Republic of India have had to deal with. In the 20th century, the colonial troops of the British Indian Army and the modern Indian army (the 1919 Jallianwala Bagh massacre and Operation Blue Star in 1984 respectively) both made a point of shooting Sikhs in and around their holiest shrine, “the Golden Temple” in the city of Amritsar, which is in the “capital” of the non-existent state of “Khalistan”. It cost Prime Minister Indira Gandhi her life, as she was later assassinated by her two Sikh bodyguards in 1984.
However, the situation with the local state Government of Punjab and the central union Government of India on the one hand, and the Sikhs on the other, has become more balanced. In other words, there have since been no problems serious enough to require anything like the “measures” taken in 1984. Sikhs are very well represented in the highest echelons of both the Government of India and the local state Government of Punjab. Manmohan Singh, who served two consecutive terms as Prime Minister of India (from 2004 to 2014), is a prime example.
Let’s put it this way: by no means do all Sikhs unanimously support the Khalistan separatist movement. This is particularly true of Sikhs living in India. Especially considering that the Government of India has been working to find a solution to an important problem for Sikhs since the 1990s, to help them gain visa-free access to the holy city of Kartarpur, located 7-8 km over the border in the Pakistani Punjab. Gurdwara, the second holiest shrine for Sikhs (after the Golden Temple) is located there, dedicated to the founder of Sikhism, Guru Nanak, who lived in Kartarpur 500 years ago.
Due to the extremely complex nature of relations between India and Pakistan, the idea of creating a special corridor through Pakistan for Sikh pilgrims did not make any progress for another two decades.
It was only in summer of 2018 when Imran Khan was sworn in as Pakistan’s new Prime Minister that the prospect of creating a “Kartarpur Corridor” started looking fairly realistic within the new Prime Minister’s stated general aim of drastically improving relations with India. One of the main steps on course to improving ties was publicly stating that Pakistan intended to end what has been a long and exhausting conflict for both countries, which neither of them have profited from.
Despite two periods which followed when bilateral relations deteriorated (in connection with the 2019 Pulwama terror attack and the repeal of Article 370 of the Constitution of India), the formal opening ceremony of the Kartarpur Corridor went ahead in the end, on November 9 this year. The leaders of both countries had a lot of good things to say at the ceremony. The Kartarpur Corridor itself was dubbed a “corridor of love”.
However, the news was soon heard that far fewer Sikhs have since passed through this corridor than had been anticipated. The fee charged for passing through the Kartarpur Corridor (a sum of 20 dollars per pilgrim), introduced three days after it was opened, could have perhaps played a role. The cost of constructing it needs to be covered somehow. It seems no one is immune to the corrupting influence of mercantilism.
In this regard, the Pakistani government has been called the usual names, seen as “nefarious”. Statements would be made along the lines of, “yet again, no one knows what the politicians have spent people’s money on.”
But all of this pales in comparison with the information bomb which was dropped on November 30, with information about this whole corridor project, and also about the senior government official seen to be heading it.
This was the day when the NewsX agency (part of the British television network ITV) cited a public statement made by Pakistan’s Federal Minister for Railways Sheikh Rasheed Ahmad, and spread the information that it was General Qamar Javed Bajwa, and not Prime Minister Imran Khan, who came up with the idea to create the Kartarpur Corridor.
Moreover, General Kamar Javed Bajwa, the current Chief of Army Staff of the Pakistan Army (COAS; the army head) was allegedly not motivated by any sort of humanitarian considerations, but by a desire to “[…] hit India by opening the corridor. Through this project, Pakistan has created a new environment of peace and won itself love of the Sikh community”.
Once again, some clarification is needed here. First of all, it should not be forgotten that the military played a “crucially important” role in the formation of Pakistan’s entire political system. It could well be that the military is also behind this political project.
Secondly, the military itself has signaled its own desire to improve relations with India. It is also important to emphasize that this was a year and a half before Prime Minister Imran Khan, who was “elected” on his promise to implement this particular policy, “designed” the Corridor project.
Thirdly, it is worth quoting the General Bajwa’s own words, when he delivered a speech at the end of November 2018 during the ceremony to “lay the foundation stone”, symbolizing the beginning of the construction work for the Kartarpur Corridor: “This is a step towards peace, which is so necessary for our region. Corridors and gates, not barbed wire, provide legal access to [the territory of Pakistan-ed.] for people with peaceful intentions.”
Fourthly, even though the overall project is positive, a little added mischief is something that cannot be ruled out. It is almost business as usual in bilateral relations. Especially in the relations that have developed between India and Pakistan. However, India must have considered the potential price it could pay for supporting the construction of the Kartarpur Corridor. Including the costs that Prime Minister Imran Khan decided to speak about publicly for some unknown reason. After weighing up all the pros and cons, Delhi decided to take part in this project.
As for Minister Sheikh Rasheed, it is hard to believe his statement could have been made to sabotage the leader of his own country. Which may be an indication of a difficult situation in Imran Khan’s government. However, it seems that Minister Sheikh Rasheed is generally characterized by his willingness to talk about subjects which tend to be approached indirectly (or even avoided). For example, after Article 370 of the Constitution of India was repealed, he was the one making the loudest threats, ready to point nukes in India’s direction.
The Pakistani Minister’s sensational statement was met with a backlash and serious concern in India, voiced on December 1 by Punjab state chief minister Amarinder Singh. The two countries have yet to rise above this series of scandals in their bilateral relations.
It is safe to say that the inauguration of the Kartarpur Corridor continues to offer us an insight into relations between the two nuclear powers on the Indian subcontinent.
Vladimir Terekhov, expert on the issues of the Asia-Pacific region, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.