Kartarpur and what it may mean for India-Pakistan ties

Just months after India and Pakistan announced the landmark decision to build a corridor to allow Sikh pilgrims a smooth passage to Guru Nanak’s final resting place in Pakistan, the Kartarpur corridor project has hit snags already.

Delegations from both nations attended the first India-Pakistan meeting on Thursday, March 14, to finalise the modalities for the proposed corridor linking Gurdaspur in Punjab with the Sikh shrine in Pakistan’s Kartarpur.

But New Delhi on Friday accused Pakistani officials of “doublespeak” in trying to renege on the clause promising visa-free passage. “Islamabad, through a back door, wanted to introduce “special permits for pilgrims for a fee,” claimed officials. It is not only outrageous but defeats the entire purpose of the corridor, they said.

But what is the Kartarpur corridor’s purpose? Before that, here’s a quick recapitulation of how both sides responded to the demands in draft.

Why is India at loggerheads with Pakistan?

Delhi has opposed Pakistan’s “surreptitious” land encroachment in the name of developing a corridor.

This alleged usurping of lands belonging to the Kartarpur Sahib gurdwara and donated by devouts, like late Maharaja Ranjeet Singh, showing utter disregard to Guru Nanak devotees’ sentiments, has not gone down well with the Indian negotiators.

“India made a strident demand for restoration of these lands to the gurudwara urgently,” a government official, who attended the meeting, said. “Pakistan has lived up to its old reputation of making false promises and tall claims and delivering nothing. Its doublespeak on the Kartarpur corridor was apparent in the first meeting itself in Attari on Thursday.”

“In stark contrast to the hype the Pakistan government and media created, its actual offer turned out to be farcical and mere tokenism. There is a sea of difference between what Pakistan, including Prime Minister Imran Khan, had announced, and in what it offered. Clearly, Pakistan isn’t interested in giving Indian pilgrims easy access to Kartarpur Sahib,” the official said.

After the stone-laying ceremony at Kartarpur last September, Khan, in his keynote address, had touched upon the possibility of peace between the two nations; he’d said 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 Kartarpur corridor project and hoped to find common ground in other issues as well. 

Pakistan is failing to live up to its promises

However, the Pakistani delegation, this week, objected to most of India’s proposals, throwing the project into doubt and disarray. According to reports, officials want to restrict the duration of the agreement to two years, despite knowing that India will spend Rs 190 crore to build long-lasting and comprehensive facilities at the border.

This has angered the Indian side and justifiably so; the corridor, after all, is for fulfilling the long-standing aspirations of Indian pilgrims of smooth and hassle-free access to Kartarpur Sahib.

While India is executing a state-of-the-art passenger terminal building for visit of over 5,000 pilgrims daily and over 15,000 on special occasions, Pakistan wants to limit it to a mere 700 pilgrims a day and replace ‘daily visits’ with specified “visiting days”.

It has also ruled against travel on foot, or alone, insisting instead on movement in groups of 15 and by vehicle, another official said. 

What purpose would the Kartarpur corridor serve?

The corridor on the Indian side is to be built and developed as part of a centrally funded “integrated development project”. The Cabinet had cleared it anticipating Guru Nanak’s 550th birth anniversary celebrations in 2019.

According to sources, India expects the corridor to be open throughout the year, without any restrictions on the number of pilgrims. There must be free and readily available consular access for Indian citizens on the Pakistani side, stressed an official in the PMO.

The 2.5-km corridor from Dera Baba Nanak in Gurdaspur district to the border will have modern amenities and facilities, Home Minister Rajnath Singh had announced right after the Centre approved the corridor.

Why it matters

Guru Nanak, who spent his life preaching universal brotherhood and peace, spent 18 years in Kartarpur. His mortal remains are also interred there, heightening the significance of this site for Sikhs, especially in light of the grand celebrations for his 550th birth anniversary.

The corridor not only serves as constructive outreach but is also the first formal contact between the rival nations, since New Delhi called off a meeting of the foreign ministers on the sidelines of the UN general assembly last September and in the wake of the Pulwama attack last month. Also, the approval for the Kartarpur corridor comes amid reports of a surge in pro-Khalistan groups in the West, which Pakistan allegedly backs.

The corridor can re-establish a link between the two estranged nations that together house the world’s largest community of Sikhs, united by their faith in the religion’s founding father. But the fundamental disagreements at the latest meeting have sown fears of further animosity between the two, instead of peace.

Prarthana Mitra is a Staff Writer at Qrius