THE decision to open a corridor from the Indian side to the Gurudwara Darbar Sahib in Kartarpur, Pakistan is one of the rare instances when the two governments of India and Pakistan have agreed to cooperate after a long period of stalemate and tensions between the two countries.
The corridor from the Dera Baba Nanak Gurudwara in Gurdaspur district of Punjab to the Darbar Sahib Gurudwara where Guru Nanak Dev spent 18 years of his life, is being opened to mark the 550th birth anniversary of the founder of Sikhism next year. With this corridor, Sikh pilgrims from Punjab can go to the holiest place of Sikhism without any hinderance.
At the ground-breaking ceremony near the Gurudwara Darbar Sahib inaugurated by Prime Minister Imran Khan, two union ministers from India Harsimrat Kaur Badal and Hardeep Singh Puri attended. So did Punjab minister Navjot Singh Sidhu, who had attracted a lot of criticism from the BJP for talking about the Kartarpur corridor with the Pakistani army chief while attending the swearing in ceremony of Imran Khan.
The joint effort in preparing the Kartarpur corridor has once again underlined the necessity for improving relations and cooperation between the two countries. It also highlighted the importance of developing people to people relations as a vital component of restoring normalcy and good neighbourly relations.
Some hopes were raised that the step to develop a corridor across the borders would create a congenial atmosphere for resuming dialogue between the two countries. Some commentators saw the decision of the Modi government in accepting the Pakistan offer for developing the corridor as a return to realism and a shift in its “no talks” stance which has been in place for the past four years. Even, Narendra Modi compared the Kartarpur corridor to the fall of the Berlin Wall and hoped it would act as a bridge between the two peoples.
But these hopes have been belied within a matter of days. Pakistan had sent an invitation to Prime Minister Modi for the SAARC summit to be held in Islamabad. On the day of the groundbreaking ceremony, External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj announced India’s rejection of the invitation and reiteration of the stand that talks cannot be held along with terrorist actions.
This falling back on a hardline stance underscores the contradictory and self-defeating stand of the Modi government in its relations with Pakistan. The first time the dialogue with Pakistan was called off in August 2014, months after the Modi government came to power was not the question of terrorist attacks but on the grounds that the Pakistan High Commissioner had met with the Hurriyat leaders from Kashmir on the eve of the foreign secretaries talks. Subsequently in March 2015, Modi made a surprise visit to Lahore to greet Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif on his birthday. This was followed by a series of steps to halt any talks at the political level including the refusal in 2016 to participate in the SAARC summit in Pakistan. The extremist attacks in Pathankot and Uri were cited as the reason.
The “surgical strikes” of September 2016 were used in a jingoistic fashion to make political capital domestically while the ground reality was that it led to more firings and shelling across the line of control and rising causalities on both sides. In Jammu & Kashmir the situation deteriorated further with the vicious cycle of brutal State repression and rising militancy.
That there is no consistency in India’s approach to Pakistan became evident once more recently, when in September this year, India accepted the new Pakistan government’s offer for a meeting of the two foreign ministers on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly session. That decision was rescinded within two days giving reasons which were difficult for anyone to understand.
The union cabinet approving the Kartarpur corridor seems more to be a decision dictated by the sentiments of the people of Punjab who want the religious pilgrimage fructify. It also comes in the background of the growing desire on both sides of Punjab for closer cooperation in trade, commerce and culture.
What is required is resumption of the comprehensive dialogue while maintaining a firm stance on tackling terrorism.
With its blinkered approach to relations with Pakistan which are dictated by its communal agenda within the country, the Modi government is constricting its scope for strategic autonomy. Whether it is Afghanistan or South Asia regional cooperation, India cannot play a positive role given its confrontationist stance towards Pakistan.
Such a position does not only affect our external policy but also will have harmful repercussions internally – the worsening situation in Kashmir and the revival of extremism in Punjab – are the two obvious pointers.
(November 28, 2018)