By Prarthana Mitra
Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan on Wednesday laid the foundation stone for the corridor that is expcted to allow Indian Sikh pilgrims a smooth visa-free passage to Guru Nanak’s final resting place in Karatarpur, Pakistan. The same day, Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj responded to Pakistan’s invitation for the SAARC summit with an emphatic “no”.
What happened at Kartarpur?
The 2.5 km corridor leading to the iconic Gurudwara Darbar Sahib Kartarpur has always been on the agenda for both nations embroiled in border and territorial conflict over Kashmir for decades. The corridor was cleared by the Indian Cabinet last week and is expected to complete construction before Guru Nanak’s 550th birth anniversary in November 2019. Pakistan Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi announced soon afterwards, that their side of the corridor would be ready by then, to welcome Sikh pilgrims on the auspicious occasion.
Among Indian dignitaries who crossed the Attari-Wagah border to attend the stone-laying ceremony were Union Ministers Hardeep Singh Puri and Harsimrat Kaur Badal. Punjab minister Navjot Singh Sidhu, who called the project “a corridor of infinite possibilities”, also attended, but not in an official capacity. Punjab’s Congress unit later clarified that Sidhu had attended on a personal invitation.
“Violence must stop and peace should return to the region,” he said. “Both the governments should realise that we have to move forward,” he added.
Sidhu, whose appearance in Imran Khan’s swearing-in ceremony had stirred up a controversy, ruffled a few feathers again, after he recited a poem in praise of the Pakistani prime minister, who reportedly said, “He [Sidhu] can come and contest election here in Pakistan’s Punjab, he’ll win.”
Pro-Khalistan separatist leader Gopal Singh was seen shaking hands with Pakistani Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa, further raising eyebrows, at a time when Khalistani sentiments are on the rise in the West, allegedly backed by Pakistan. Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh reportedly declined the invitation citing the terror attacks in Amritsar, and deaths of Indian soldiers by Pakistani forces.
What did Imran Khan say?
Post-ceremony, in his keynote address at Kartarpur, Khan touched upon the possibility of peace between the two nations, saying all it needs is “two capable leadership [sic] to resolve this issue. Just imagine the potential we have if our relationships get[s] strong.”
He restated his commitment to the corridor project and hoped to find common ground in other issues as well. He continued, saying, “If France and Germany who fought several wars can live in peace, why not India and Pakistan. I want a strong relationship with India. Pakistan’s civilian and military leadership are on the same page on this.”
Puri, on the other hand, gave a reserved and measured reponse: “You have to be acutely conscious of the ground realities. You have to be aware of mistrust which exists. ” Asked if the corridor can improve relations between the two nations, he said that the project is anchored in goodwill and hope, but said, “whether we are able to transform this into something meaningful in terms of people to people contact and breaking of the ice and taking it further, that is something we will have to work on”.
How did India react?
India’s External Affairs Ministry later slammed Khan for politicising the occasion, by raising the issue of Kashmir in his speech during the ground-breaking ceremony, calling it “unwarranted”. Badal told the Pakistani media, “Kashmir is a part of India and will stay that way. There is no scope of negotiation on this. I have told this clearly.”
These sentiments were echoed by Swaraj later, who firmly clarified from Delhi, that the corridor will not lead to talks until Pakistan stops sponsoring and harbouring terrorists.
“[…] I am very happy that for the last 20 years, rather many years, India has been asking for the Kartarpur corridor and for the first time, Pakistan responded positively to this. But it doesn’t mean that the bilateral dialogue will start only on this. The bilateral talks always say that terror and talks can’t go together. The moment Pakistan stops terrorist activities in India, the dialogue can start. But the dialogue is not only connected with Kartarpur corridor,” Swaraj said while the ceremony was underway across the border.
Dialogue between the two nations has been put on hold since 2013. This is the second time in three months that India has called off a meeting of the foreign ministers, after New Delhi cancelled a potential meeting on the sidelines of the UN general assembly in September. The latest refusal comes just days after the anniversary of 26/11 terror attack, whose mastermind Hafiz Saeed continues to roam freely in Pakistan.
That said, India also claimed that a SAARC summit cannot be organised without the consent of all its members, and all SAARC meetings have been suspended since 2016. Pakistan cannot unilaterally send out invites, New Delhi said on Tuesday, adding that neither Bangladesh nor Sri Lanka can participate in a regional cooperation summit with internal political crises brewing in both nations at present.
Prarthana Mitra is a staff writer at Qrius.
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