Pakistani army soldiers gather in front of Kartarpur Gurdwara Sahib during the groundbreaking ceremony for the Kartarpur Corridor in Kartarpur on November 28, 2018. - Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan launched the groundbreaking ceremony of the religious corridor between India and Pakistan. (Photo by ARIF ALI / AFP)
Pakistani army soldiers gather in front of Kartarpur Gurdwara Sahib during the groundbreaking ceremony for the Kartarpur Corridor in Kartarpur on November 28, 2018. Photo: AFP

Sri Kartarpur Sahib Gurudwara is located in the district of Narowal in Punjab. Guru Nanak, who founded Sikhism, used to live in this area. He died in 1539 and a shrine was built in his memory. For around 25 million Sikhs, this shrine is their holiest site, and visiting it is considered a religious obligation.

Every day the followers of the Sikh religion gather a few kilometers from the shrine to view it. They cannot get any closer because the border between Pakistan and India blocks their path.

However, that will soon change. Pakistan has decided to open the Kartarpur Corridor for Sikh pilgrims, allowing them to visit the holy site without a visa. This is s a big development. When the Kartarpur Corridor becomes operational next year, in time for the 550th anniversary of the birth of Guru Nanak, Sikhs will have access to perform their religious rituals for the first time since the partitioning of the two countries in 1947.

The project, which involves the construction of a road and a bridge, is a diplomatic masterstroke by the state of Pakistan. However, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who is on the cusp of general elections in India, has not responded warmly to this gesture.

Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan has sent a clear message that Islamabad is interested in initiating a dialogue for the resolution of conflicts. On the occasion of the corridor’s inaugural ceremony, Khan said, “There have been mistakes on both sides in the past, but we will not be able to move forward until we break the chains of the past.”

Peace overture

This can be construed as a peace overture from the Pakistani military establishment: it is no longer interested in fighting direct or proxy battles with India and seeks normalization of relations. A civilian leader in Pakistan cannot take such a diplomatic step without being told do so by the military establishment.

Former prime minister Nawaz Sharif tried to reach out to India and was branded a traitor. The Modi government was more comfortable dealing with Sharif, as he somehow managed to get rid of the influence of the establishment in Pakistan. Sharif was trusted by the late Atal Bharee Vajpayee, and his friendly ties with Modi also kept him in New Dehli’s good books.

Sharif’s popularity with New Dehli was not welcomed by the establishment in Pakistan. Benazir Bhutto in the 1990s and then Sharif in his tenure tried their best to engage New Dehli in dialogue, but both faced stern criticism within the country and they were declared traitors and infidels.

Bhutto was accused of favoring Rajiv Gandhi by giving him a list of the Sikh militants who started an insurgency in India to secure independence from New Dehli. Sharif was declared a traitor and a slogan was coined – “Modi ka jo yar who Ghaddar hay” (a friend of Modi is a traitor) – to portray him as an agent of foreign powers who was compromising national security. Khan used this slogan throughout his electoral campaign and vowed that he would never beg Modi and New Dehli to sit and talk. He was at that time of the view that he would only talk to New Dehli on his own terms.

Former prime minister Nawaz Sharif tried to reach out to India and was branded a traitor

Perhaps General Qamar Javaid Bajwa, the Pakistani army chief of staff, is responsible for this initiative, and Khan is merely the symbolic political face. Navjote Singh Sidhu, a Punjab minister, already said that Bajwa told him during his visit to Pakistan to attend Khan’s oath-taking ceremony that Islamabad may open the corridor to Kartarpur Sahib.

In any case, it does not matter who proposed the idea as any step taken towards reviving the bilateral dialogue should be appreciated. It is also a good sign that the Pakistani establishment has realized that direct battles or proxy wars will never yield any fruitful result, and it will only cause further deterioration of the economy of Pakistan.

While the Pakistani establishment seems to have learned its lesson, New Dehli is still reluctant to extend the hand of friendship to Pakistan. It is still unclear whether or not New Delhi is interested in starting a new chapter with Pakistan and ending its support for the insurgency in Balochistan and in the Pashtun belt along the Pakistan-Afghanistan. New Delhi also seems to be a hostage to India’s hyper-nationalist media outlets, which never miss an opportunity to sabotage the peace dialogue and blame Pakistan for all the miseries afflicting India.

The Indian media showed its bias by selectively showing Gopal Chawla a member of Khalistan movement, meeting General Bajwa, and made it look like he was deliberately meeting Chawla to assure him of Pakistani support.

One wonders when the Indian media will learn to report factually, as it only takes a bit of common sense to understand that he was a guest at the venue and that it was not possible for him to refuse to shake hands or hug anyone present. India’s hyper-nationalist media outlets need to learn about the protocols of diplomacy.

Good diplomatic move

As far as the opening of the Kartarpur border is concerned, it can be described as a good diplomatic move by General Bajwa and his men, but chances are very slim that it will result in the resumption of a bilateral dialogue between the two countries. Even if both Pakistan and India are willing to make peace with each other, the global powers involved in the great game in Afghanistan and the sale of billions of dollars worth of weapons to South Asian countries will never let peace prevail.

However, for the Sikh pilgrims, this move to provide access to Kartarpur is a dream come true and New Dehli will eventually hopefully reciprocate by opening the border on the Kashmir side so people who are separated from their loved ones can reunite.

India-Pakistan relations are complex and influenced by global players and developments. Therefore, the Kartarpur Corridor will not resolve the conflict between the two countries. However, one hopes that one day both countries will burn the bitterness of the past and become friendly neighbors.

Imad Zafar

Imad Zafar is a journalist and columnist/commentator for newspapers. He is associated with TV channels, radio, newspapers, news agencies, and political, policy and media related think-tanks.

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