Politics of the Kartarpur Sahib corridor

Politics of the Kartarpur Sahib corridor

P.K.Balachandran/South Asian Monitor

After many false starts beginning way back in 1999, the governments of India and Pakistan are finally on to performing “ground-breaking” ceremonies for the construction of the “Kartarpur Corridor” linking the Dera Baba Nanak Sikh Gurdwara in the Indian Punjab with the Kartarpur Sahib Sikh shrine in Pakistani Punjab.

It was in Kartarpur in Pakistan, four kilometers from the India-Pakistan border, that the founder of the Sikh faith, Guru Nanak, (1469 – 1539) spent the last 18 years of his life.

Last Thursday, the Indian cabinet cleared the proposal to build a road up to the Pakistan border to link with a similar road constructed by the Pakistan government from Kartarpur Sahib to the Indian border.

The ground breaking ceremony on the Indian side was held on November 26. On November 28, the Pakistan Prime Minister, Imran Khan, will be inaugurating the ground-breaking ceremony at Kartarpur Sahib.

In a welcome break from the past, there were manifest expressions of goodwill and bonhomie from the governments of India and Pakistan each for its own reasons which will cited later.

Akin To Breaking Berlin Wall

A day after the Indian cabinet approved the building of the corridor, Prime Minister Narendra Modi likened it to the breaking of the Berlin Wall that divided East and West Germany from 1961 to 1989. The fall of the wall marked the beginning of Germany’s unification, which was completed in 1990.

“When I was the Chief Minister of Gujarat, I ordered to re-construct the sacred place where Guru Nanak’s “padukaon” had been kept. The place had got damaged due to an earthquake. Today, it has become a World Heritage site. With the blessings of Guru Nanak Dev-ji, Kartarpur Corridor is not only a corridor, it also could be a reason to connect people,” Modi said to endear himself to the Sikhs.

The foundation stone for the corridor on the Indian side was laid on Monday by Vice-President Venkaiah Naidu and Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh.

Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj would not be able to attend the groundbreaking ceremony on the Pakistani side on November 28, due to the on-going election campaign in South India. But the Indian government is sending Sikh Union ministers Harsimrat Kaur Badal and Hardip Singh Puri.

A remarkable thing about these groundbreaking ceremonies is that they took place on the tenth anniversary of 26/11  terrorist attacks on multiple targets in the metropolis of Mumbai carried out by Pakistan-backed Lashkar-e-Toiba. Over 165 people were killed and 300 injured.

The attack had greatly damaged India-Pakistan relations. But New Delhi has not allowed the memory of this shattering event to come in the way of the initiative to build the corridor.

In addition to Union Ministers Badal and Puri, the Punjab Minister of Culture, the cricketer–turned politician Navjot Singh Sidhu, will be attending in his personal capacity as a friend of cricketer turned Pakistan Prime Minister, Imran Khan.

Former Punjab Chief Minister and Akali Dal (Sikh Party) patriarch, Parkash Singh Badal, hailed the Modi government especially Prime Minister Modi and Union Ministers Rajnath Singh and Arun Jaitley for respecting the sentiments and wishes of the Sikh masses all over the world by taking the initiative on the corridor.

“This is their historic and unprecedented tribute to Sikh sentiments,” Badal said.

The Akalis have claimed credit for the corridor, maintaining that in 1999, they had got the then Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee to take up the matter with Pakistan. But Vajpayee’s attempt proved abortive because there was no response from the Pakistan government.

The Akali Dal then took up the issue directly with the Pakistan government, with Badal meeting the Pakistan High Commissioner Sohail Mehmood in New Delhi in December 2017. But again nothing came of it.

The Congress party too had tried to build the corridor. In 2004, when Manmohan Singh was Prime Minister, he had announced that the corridor would be built. He had reiterated the pledge during his subsequent visits to Punjab in 2005 and 2006. However, despite his best efforts the plan did not materialize.

On The Pakistani Side

On the Pakistani side, the Federal Minister for Information and Broadcasting, Chaudhry Fawad Hussain,  termed the groundbreaking as “historic”.

He further said: “ Through its conduct has once again, Pakistan has proved that it stands for peace in South Asia. This is a big, huge peace initiative and has the support of the whole world. Pakistan has once again shown who stands for peace in South Asia and who does not.”

The Pakistan Foreign Minister Makhdoom Shah Mahmod Qureshi had invited his Indian counterpart, Sushma Swaraj, to grace the occasion in Kartarpur and had also invited the Indian Punjab Chief Minister Capt.Amarinder Singh. But both excused themselves.

Discordant Voices and Events

Be that as it may, as it often happens in India-Pakistan relations, conflicts never fail to rear their ugly heads to spoil the atmosphere. There are spoilers with a political axe to grind.

Striking a discordant note, the Indian Punjab Chief Minister Capt. Amarinder Singh wrote a letter to the Pakistan Foreign Minister Qureshi, to say that while he welcomed the corridor, he would not attend the ceremony because of Pakistan’s involved in terrorist activities in India.

Amarinder pointed out that he could not step into Pakistan when Indian soldiers were being killed in Kashmir by Pakistani troops. He recalled that a few months ago, his former battalion lost a Major and two soldiers in an ambush laid on the Indian side of the Line of Control.

Singh charged that Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) were indulging in nefarious activities in Punjab. Since he came to power in March 2017, the State had neutralized 19 ISI controlled militant modules, apprehended 81 terrorists and recovered 79 weapons, in addition to seizing numerous grenades of the HG 84 type made in Pakistan’s Ordnance factories with Austrian know-how.

Amarinder then referred to the recent grenade attack in Amritsar’s Nirankari Satsang Bhawan where three people were killed and 19 injured. The attack was carried out by Pakistan’s ISI-backed Khalistani groups, he charged.

“I hope the Pakistan Prime Minister will understand that under these circumstances it will not be possible for me to be present in Pakistan on this historic occasion, despite the fact that paying my respects at Gurdwara Sri Kartarpur Sahib has always been my cherished dream, which will hopefully be fulfilled once these hostilities and killings are stopped,” Singh said.

Amarinder-Sidhu Conflict

After declining the Pakistani invitation, Amarinder Singh turned his guns on his cabinet colleague Navjot Singh Sidhu for accepting the Pakistani invitation and saying that he was “joyous” that his efforts to get the corridor opened had borne fruit.

Singh had earlier slammed Sidhu for embracing the Pakistani army chief, Gen.Qamar Javed Banwa, when he was in Pakistan in August for the inauguration of his cricketing friend Imran Khan’s government.

Reports from Punjab say that Chief Minister Amarinder Singh is feeling politically threatened by Sidhu who is young, ambitious, and hard working in contrast to Amarinder’s laid back approach.Amarinder has been trying to stem the advance of Sidhu by sidelining him. But Sidhu is fighting back successfully.

Political Fallout

By boycotting the groundbreaking ceremony in Pakistan Amarinder Singh may alienate the Sikhs whose long standing demand has been to be able to visit their shrines in Pakistan.

Amarinder’s attitude may be harmful to the Congress which had managed to come back to power in Sikh-dominated Punjab only last year. The hard line Sikh party, Dal Khalsa, has slammed the Amarinder for declining the Pakistani invitation on ‘flimsy and unreasonable grounds’. It termed Amarinder’s stand as ‘political stupidity’.

“Amarinder is under an illusion that by refusing to go to Pakistan, he will get Hindu votes besides a pat from security establishment,” said Dal Khalsa leader H S Dhami, while praising Sidhu.
The gainers in all this will be Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Sikh communal party the Akali Dal. By promising to break barriers the way the Germans broke the Berlin Wall, BJP leader Narendra Modi could get Sikh votes in the May 2019 parliamentary elections which are proving to be an uphill task for him given his non-performance as an administrator.

As for Pakistan, the opening of the Kartarpur corridor will help it get rid of the stigma arising from the charge that is harboring UN-designated terrorists involved in the 26/11 Mumbai attacks. It will help shake off the image of Pakistan as a radical Islamic country intolerant towards the minorities. This can be seen clearly in the statement made by Information Minister Fawad Hussain Chaudhri.

(The featured photo at the top shows Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan with the Indian Punjab’s Culture Minister Navjot Singh Sidhu)