By Dr.Swaran Singh/Ceylon Today
After a brief period of heightened tension involving air actions from both sides, the first since the 1971 Bangladesh war, the long frozen India-Pakistan talks are resuming from on March 14 to discuss the limited issue of Pakistan’s providing visa-free access for Indian Sikh pilgrims visiting their revered Kartarpur Sahib Gurudwara (temple) in Pakistan.
The follow up next round of these talks are scheduled to take place in Lahore within a fortnight, on March 28.
India has emphatically said that these talks are being held only to meet the religious sentiments of its Sikh citizens and that they do not, in any way, imply resumption of bilateral ties as yet.
However, the resumption of talks on the Kartarpur corridor does mark a move away from India’s standard policy of ‘terror and talks cannot go together.”
The talks are therefore pregnant with possibilities of triggering an incremental change in troubled India-Pakistan relations.
It was on February 8, that New Delhi and Islamabad agreed to organize reciprocal visits to clinch a historic agreement to provide India’s Sikh pilgrims a special permit to visit one of their most revered Gurudwara (temples) inside Pakistan.
In spite of heightened tempers following the Pulwama fedayeen (suicide) attack followed by air actions by both sides and the psychological war of words about submarines and nuclear arsenals, India and Pakistan are keeping their date with each other as planned.
This makes the Kartarpur talks integral to the much-desired de-escalation of the conflict.
The most visible part of the de-escalation is in the return of Indian and Pakistani High Commissioners, who were earlier ‘called back’ for consultations following the Pulwama terrorist attack on February 14. The second most visible part is the resumption of talks over the Kartarpur Corridor.
As a follow up to the meeting over the Kartarpur corridor on March 14, there will be a meeting within a fortnight and not on the Attari border point but in Lahore.
This has a deep socio-cultural and historical meaning in the context of India-Pakistan interactions. It underlines Pakistan’s continued efforts to engage India driven by its need to repair its international image of being a ‘breeding ground’ of terrorism.
Both sides have displayed a strong shared understanding on how time is of the essence. The follow up talks are happening within a fortnight and construction work on the corridor is also fast tracked.
Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan had laid the foundation stone at Kartarpur on November 28, 2018 and by 2nd February 45 per cent of its work was reported to have been completed.
This shows Pakistan’s commitment to making the corridor operational before the November deadline. In November, the Kartarpur Gurudwara will be the focal point for the celebrations of the 550th. birth anniversary of the first of the ten Gurus of the Sikhs, Baba Guru Nanak Dev who had died in Kartarpur in 1539.
The celebrations will help germinate positive synergies between India and Pakistan.
Last week the Indian Ministry of Home Affairs (Interior) approved a plan to construct a state-of-art corridor between Dera Baba Nanak in Gurdaspur district in India and Kartarpur Sahib Gurudwara just across the international border in Pakistan.
The Land Ports Authority of India has been ordered to work on a fast track basis on the passenger terminal complex to be built at Kartarpur Sahib Corridor. The terminal will ensure the smooth movement and customs clearance of 5,000 pilgrims. Pakistan will be issuing special permits to 500 visitors per day.
However, despite such positive signals, it is important not to build very high exceptions from Thursday’s talks. High expectations tend to end up making even achievements look like failures. It is important to remember how both sides continue to be entangled in their historical baggage and political circumspection.
While the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is in the midst of India’s general elections, the Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan has also to focus first on the much-needed bailout for the Pakistani economy. He should also not cross too many red lines drawn by the Deep State in Pakistan. This means that in spite of all these nice optics, the space to maneuver is quite limited.
Firstly, the interlocutors have an uphill task and very limited time. The Pakistani delegation is expected to cross over into India at 9 am on March 14 and hold non-stop negotiations till 5 pm. The fact that they will brief the media both before and after these talks puts unnecessary expectations about the outcome.
Members of Pakistani delegation will include senior officials from the Ministries of Foreign, Interior and Religious Affairs and from the Provincial Government of Punjab. They will be accompanied by a separate team of technical experts to discuss on-the-ground alignment of the Corridor to ensure that its final version meets approval from both sides. Managing so may strings within a day, is not easy.
It is interesting to note that Dr Mohammad Faisal, spokesperson of Pakistan foreign office, whose twitter account was last week suspended on complaints made by Indian authorities, will be leading the Pakistani delegation.
Among other matters, Dr. Faisal had tweeted about ‘gross human rights violations’ in Jammu and Kashmir. This would call for “perception management” from both the Indian and Pakistani delegations sitting across the table.
Similarly, on the eve of talks, Pakistan’s former High Commissioner to India, Abdul Basit, in a television interview talked of the need to appoint a Special Envoy for Jammu and Kashmir. And then there is Deep State of Pakistan that treats terrorism and tensions with India as essential to ensure its centrality and power in Pakistan.
On the Indian side as well, a tough stance continues to be favored. Initially, there was speculation about Thursday’s talks being held in New Delhi. That had a deep symbolism for the resumption of talks with Pakistan. The Modi government was not yet willing to accept that.
This is not the first time that India-Pakistan talks are happening on the Wagah-Attari border that connects the Punjab provinces of India and Pakistan. In the past, meetings between India and Pakistan Directors General of Military Operations and also between Pakistan Rangers and Indian Border Security Force were held on the Wahga-Attari border.
But the current talks being held in the midst of India’s general election will make this shift of venue be read as driven primarily by Modi government’s need to engage India’s domestic constituencies which also include contrarian voices against which the ruling regime would not like to appear weak and vulnerable.
India has always had constituencies that propagate New Delhi’s resuming talks with Pakistan at all cost. Amongst others, former Chief Minister of Jammu & Kashmir, Mahbooba Mufti, whose party was in coalition with the ruling Bhartiya Janata Party from early 2014 till June last year, last week reiterated that “there has to be a dialogue process internally as well as externally, with Pakistan.”
She is also the one who has been propagating India exploring ways to join the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor – a demand which is at great variance with the position taken by the Indian government in New Delhi.
The Modi government would not like to be goaded by the opposition or be seen as being weak in dealing with Pakistan. The key, therefore, lies in keeping the expectations low. They are only baby steps towards a distant and uncertain comprehensive dialogue, an incremental change in India-Pakistan equations.
(The featured image at the top shows the Kartarpur Gurdwara in the Pakistani Punjab)
(The author isa Pprofessor, Jawaharlal Nehru University (New Delhi) and senior fellow, Institute for National Security Studies Sri Lanka (Colombo).