Laying and opening the corridor to Kartarpur Sahib, located where Guru Nanak Dev was born 550 years ago and spent last 18 years of his life is the only positive development in India-Pakistan relations this year and it has been aptly compared with the Indus Water Treaty of 1960 that has worked despite perennial hostilities.
This will allow Indian pilgrims to visit Darbar Sahib gurdwara in Kartarpur. The corridor will link Dera Baba Nanak at Gurdaspur in India to the gurdwara in Pakistan’s Punjab. Given the poor state of bilateral ties, the fact that the two sides agreed on the pact, after deep uncertainties and several twists and turns, is a near-miracle and must be welcomed.
This is a unique pact as it will allow pilgrims to travel across the border without a visa. India reluctantly conceded Pakistan’s move to charge a service fee of $20 from every pilgrim. Islamabad has argued this levy is necessary to cover its expenditure on infrastructure and various services to be provided to the pilgrims. While this is true, however, the service fee is substantially higher than the current visa fee of just $2.
How one would have liked to see the tribute to one of South Asia’s most significant prophets of peace and piety in a decent, civilized manner. But as this is being written, there could still be some unforeseen obstacles on the corridor.
The Indian delegation of 575 will include former prime minister Manmohan Singh, Punjab Chief Minister Amrinder Singh and Sikh elected representatives from different parties and walks of life.
Why has India sought this corridor? It is home to the majority of the Sikh community and has sought play its legitimate role. It also needs to spread the word that it treats this significant religious minority with respect to the large Sikh diasporas living across the world. Bright example comes from Canada that has elected 17, mostly Sikhs/Punjabis to its parliament recently.
But Indian security officials nurse genuine concerns about the pilgrims, especially from those from far-off lands, being exposed to the propaganda of pro-Khalistan elements. There is enough evidence in the public domain about the activities of these elements in Pakistan, which also roped them in for recent protests in Western capitals against the change of Jammu and Kashmir’s special status.
Needless to say, Punjabis on both sides of the border are great hosts. The Pakistan Sikh Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (PSGPC) with the support of the government of Pakistan has prepared a detailed programme, spanning over a week, for the visiting devotees for performing different religious rituals at holy Sikh gurdwaras in Pakistan, particularly Nankana Sahib and Kartarpur Sahib.
The agreement allows for 5,000 pilgrims visiting the shrines daily. It is a great opportunity for mutual bonhomie. But one cannot ignore the permanent hostility of the governments, some of which is passed on to the people and some sections do become mirror images of each other. The way Pakistan has become a topic of political and electoral discourse in India is a matter of record.
Calling Pakistan levying $20 Jazia tax, reminding of the medieval oppression of Sikhs by Mughals is playing to the gallery. Indian shrines levy charges to facilitate quick darshan and India did not object to China taxing, even increasing the fees to Indian pilgrims to Manasarovar. The Indian gripe is perhaps because it stands to earn $ 25 million while Pakistan stands to earn $36 million at Kartarpur Sahib.
From Pakistan side, even as agreement for Kartarpur Sahib corridor was being finalized, the army’s Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) got made and released a raunchy anti-India video. It showed a drunken, over-sized Sikh character dancing to an item number produced by the Pakistan Army’s ISPR as part of the renewed anti-India tirade.
The Sikh character, among the many, purportedly Indians, some dressed like Hindu sadhus and others sporting Gandhi cap, is shown with liquor bottles and is dancing away.
Neelum Muneer, the dancer, has told Images, the cultural section of Dawn newspaper (October 24, 2019) that she did the ‘raunchy’ item number, “probably my first and last” only “because it is an ISPR project.”
“I did this song only because this movie is a project of ISPR. Perhaps this is the first and last item song of my life. But you all know that whatever I do, I own it and I do it with pride. Pakistan key liay meri jan hamesha hazir hay. I’m sure you all will go and watch this movie. Enjoy.”
This happened even as Prime Minister Imran Khan took credit for initiating and completing on time the corridor, while spewing venom at his Indian counterpart, Narendra Modi calling him Hitler and BJP and Sangh Parivar, Nazis.
Despite all this, Indian Punjab’s chief minister Amrinder Singh is positive. His grandfather, Maharaja Bhupinder Singh of Patiala, had got the present structure of the shrine repaired in 1925 after floods spending Rs 135,000.
He has hailed the Kartarpur corridor writing thus: “The corridor, I believe, has shown us that it is more than possible to bridge the differences that have assumed unnaturally grave proportions in these seven decades.”
“What makes this achievement truly remarkable is that both India and Pakistan stuck to their deadlines against all odds, in the face of many disturbing and disruptive developments in the last one year, to fulfill their ends of the bargain. This gives me, and I am sure it gives the people of both countries, a powerful sense of optimism about the future.”
“However, the fructification of this optimism would depend, to a great extent, on how soon, and how effectively, Pakistan leverages the opportunity it has got in the shape of the Kartarpur Corridor. From where I see it, the corridor has the potential to stand out as a historic symbol of peace and hope of a better tomorrow for Indo-Pak relations.”
He aptly calls the corridor “an icon of our collective future, and a beacon to show us the way to do it.” He wants it to be “the burial ground for hatred and mistrust,” between the two nations. But equally aptly, he warns: “Terror and violence have no place in this Corridor of Peace — a truth that I am sure Islamabad realises, and hope it is ready to acknowledge.”
Amrinder Singh reflects the sane view that is in short supply in both countries. Only time will tell if this 4.5 kilometer corridor will pave the corridor to peace between the two nations.