The opening of the "Kartarpur corridor" across the troubled India-Pakistan international border that will enable Indian Sikh pilgrims to visit the final resting place of Guru Nanak (1469 – 1539) has the potential to introduce an unexpected thaw in the bilateral relationship. The fact that this dramatic breakthrough was announced on the eve of the 10th anniversary of the November 26, 2008 (26/11) terror attack on Mumbai has significant and intriguing political symbolism. Has Delhi changed its terror-talks policy ? However this hopeful development is nascent and fragile.
Both governments moved swiftly to facilitate this corridor which will be widely welcomed in the run-up to the 550th birth anniversary of the Sikh guru. This joint decision to respond to a long pending request by the Sikh community came as a welcome surprise and marks the first positive bilateral policy initiative after the high-visibility visit by Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Lahore in December 2015.
In an expansive manner, Modi described this breakthrough as the equivalent of the collapse of the Berlin Wall that heralded the end of the Cold War. But this optimism may be premature, if India-Pakistan ties over the last 20 years is an indicator.
Predictably the tangled reality of the bilateral relationship with its terror overhang and domestic political compulsions in India have clouded the symbolic ground- breaking ceremonies in India (November 26) and in Pakistan (November 28). It has been announced that the Indian Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj will not attend this event in Pakistan and neither will Amarinder Singh the Chief Minister of Punjab. The former cited "prior commitments" while the latter sent a more detailed missive to his Pakistani host conveying his inability to be present at what is a very major religious event for the Sikh community and the state of Punjab.
The Singh letter to Pakistan Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi highlighted two reasons for declining the invite – first the fact that "not a day passes when Indian soldiers are not killed or injured on the Line of Control in Jammu and Kashmir"; and second that "the ISI has started its nefarious activities within my State". Amarinder Singh (a former captain in the Indian army) also cautioned the Pakistani Army Chief General Javed Bajwa on Monday (Nov 26) at the ground-breaking ceremony not to provoke India through terrorism.
However, the Modi government has indicated that two central ministers - Hardeep Singh Puri and Harsimrat Kaur Badal, both Sikhs - will attend the event in Pakistan. This visit marks the first by an Indian minister to Pakistan since 2016, imbued with the symbolism and hope that this will mark an improvement in the troubled bi-lateral relationship is palpable.
Support to terrorism by the ‘deep-state’ in Rawalpindi remains the heavy cross that bedevils the India-Pakistan relationship and Delhi is awaiting tangible movement by Islamabad in relation to bringing the perpetrators of the Mumbai 26/11 terror attack to justice. Pakistan continues to be convulsed by its internal demons and two terror attacks on Friday (November 23) – one in Karachi that targeted the Chinese consulate and the second in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province that killed 32 people.
The litmus test for the Pakistani government is to unequivocally sever both support and links to the various terror groups it has spawned over the last three decades but this socio-political surgery may undermine the whole foundation on which the Pakistani state rests. This is the major regional conundrum which, paradoxically, introduces some degree of correspondence for both Beijing and Delhi in relation to terrorism.
The success of the Xi Jinping-led Chinese BRI (Belt Road Initiative) is predicated on the CPEC (China-Pakistan Economic Corridor) and the terror attack on the Chinese consulate in Karachi does not augur well for the long term viability of this macro connectivity-cum-trade project. Beijing’s unqualified support to Pakistan’s selective approach to terror will need objective policy review and deep structural redress.
Can Kartarpur be the beginning of a new page for Pakistan and the bilateral relationship? Both India and Pakistan are poised at domestically sensitive phases in their political trajectories - Modi preparing for national elections and Imran Khan still settling into office - and thus they will have to proceed very cautiously in building on the slender hope that Kartarpur represents.
(The author is Director, Society for Policy Studies. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)