Kartarpur corridor, though historic, won’t beckon peace


By Abdul Basit

The Kartapur Corridor is finally turning into a reality. For decades, the Sikh community in India has asked both Pakistan and India to build a 4 km long corridor that would connect a Sikh temple in Gurdaspur, India to the Gurdwara Darbar Sahib Kartarpur in Pakistan- one of the religion’s most sacred sites.
It was at this temple in Kartarpur that the founder of Sikhism, Guru Nanak Dev Ji, spent the last 17 years of his life, and marks the site where he died in 1539.
Next month, Sikhs around the globe will celebrate Guru Nanak’s 550th birth anniversary. On the occasion, there can be no better gift presented to the Sikh community by Pakistan and India than the Kartarpur corridor. Starting from Nov. 9, every day 5,000 Sikh pilgrims from India will travel to Kartarpur without a visa, as a long cherished dream finally comes true.
Interestingly, this is happening against the backdrop of mounting tensions between the two countries following India’s decision in August to revoke the special status of Indian-administered Kashmir. Some in Pakistan, including myself, contended that the work on Kartarpur should be suspended from the Pakistan side, because Kashmir is central to bilateral relations and India’s decision should not be accepted as a new normal. However, Islamabad didn’t see merit in the argument, and decided to keep the strictly religious matter separate from Kashmir.
Pakistan’s decision to build the corridor was made public last August, and coincided with the oath-taking of Prime Minister Imran Khan. The new Prime Minister must have thought at the time, that his decision would convey the seriousness and sincerity of his purpose in building peace with India.

Certainly, India was caught unaware with Pakistan’s sudden decision in favor of the corridor. In the past, New Delhi did take up the matter with Islamabad but not with serious purpose. In fact, as Pakistan’s High Commissioner in New Delhi between 2014 and 2017, I don’t remember the Indian side ever raising the subject of Kartarpur with us. Concerned about the Khalistan movement, a Sikh separatist movement, the Indian establishment has always been apprehensive of the proposed corridor and to date, there are voices of concern. 
One hopes that the completion of the Kartarpur corridor would push Pakistan-India relations to a point from where the two countries are able to move forward. However, this may not happen.
In fact, the real challenge in India-Pakistan relations is not about moving forward but about doing so irreversibly. Various confidence-building measures have been put in place during the last seven decades aimed at generating positive momentum, all to find the process ending up back at square one. There is yet no effective bilateral mechanism in place that could help avoid a stalemate every now and then. One can never tell between India and Pakistan- the Kartarpur corridor could itself become a reason for more bilateral stalemates in the future.
When all is said and done, there is no denying the fact that Kashmir remains the root cause of bilateral problems. The chasms this dispute has created since 1947 are now so deep that they could perhaps never be bridged without first resolving the dispute itself. The confidence building approach to bilateral relations has so far failed to meet expectations. Ergo, I would be reluctant to wager on Kartarpur, or to expect it would help achieve a breakthrough.
What then should be done with this cumbersome yet hugely important relationship in South Asia? Only bilateral talks are not the answer, though one cannot expect the resolution of issues without negotiations, and without fair quid pro quos.
The international community may be reluctant to get involved in mediation, for a slew of political and commercial reasons. And there is no dearth of crises and conflicts in other parts of the world begging for attention and intervention. This general insouciance goes to India’s advantage.
The people of Jammu and Kashmir have rendered massive sacrifices to get their inalienable right to self-determination. Their predicament continues and has become far more painful after India’s decision in August. For how long then, will the world continue riding rough shod over their legitimate aspirations and allow India to continue with gross human rights violations.
Of course, Pakistan has its own limitations. But if the humanitarian situation in Kashmir worsens, it will be extremely difficult for Pakistan to look the other way- Kartarpur or no Kartarpur.
(Abdul Basit is the president of Pakistan Institute for Conflict and Security Studies. He was previously Pakistan’s ambassador to Germany and Pakistan’s High Commissioner to India.)