India and Pakistan work to set up a Sikh religious corridor

Indian Sikh devotees look out towards the Gurdwara Kartarpur Sahib in Pakistan from the Indian side at Dera Baba Nanak, on the outskirts of Amritsar, on Nov 25, 2018.
Indian Sikh devotees look out towards the Gurdwara Kartarpur Sahib in Pakistan from the Indian side at Dera Baba Nanak, on the outskirts of Amritsar, on Nov 25, 2018.PHOTO: AFP

NEW DELHI - Relations between India and Pakistan have taken a cautious step forward with the two countries deciding to establish a religious corridor that connects Punjab in India with a key Sikh gurdwara across the border.

The move comes with a proposal to offer visa-free access for Indian pilgrims to the temple.

Indian Vice-President Venkaiah Naidu laid the foundation stone on Monday (Nov 26) for the corridor that connects Dera Baba Nanak in the Indian state of Punjab to the international border.

This will be followed up on Wednesday by Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan who will mark the start of the corridor's establishment on its side of the border up to the Gurdwara Darbar Sahib in Kartarpur.

Sikhism's founder Guru Nanak spent his last 18 years in Kartarpur and the gurdwara was constructed in his honour after he died there in 1539.

Some of Sikhism's important shrines are located in Pakistan and continue to be visited by thousands of pilgrims from India each year, who have long complained of harassment because of complex visa regulations and other logistical hurdles.

The corridor to Kartarpur, meant to ease this process, is a demand that has been around for more than two decades. Its acceptance now is being viewed as a sign of progress even as old concerns, particularly on terrorism, continue to bedevil ties between the two South Asian neighbours.

The ceremony to lay the foundation stone in India was in fact held on a day that marked the 10th anniversary of the November 2008 attack in Mumbai by Pakistan-based terrorists.

India used the occasion on Monday to accuse Pakistan of showing "little sincerity in bringing (the) perpetrators to justice" and urged it to "give up double standards and to expeditiously bring the perpetrators of the horrific attack to justice".

Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh, a leader of the opposition Congress party, even shunned an invitation from Mr Khan to attend the groundbreaking ceremony in Pakistan.

 
 

Captain Singh tweeted that, despite his "dream" to visit the Kartarpur gurdwara, he "cannot go while killings of Indian soldiers and terror attacks in Punjab continue". Three people were killed in a grenade attack on a prayer hall near Amritsar, on Nov 18, which he blamed on Pakistan.

Dr TCA Raghavan, a former Indian high commissioner to Pakistan and the current director-general of the Indian Council of World Affairs, described the move to establish a religious corridor as an initial positive step.

"Given that nothing much was happening otherwise, it shows that India-Pakistan ties can move forward in unexpected ways but I would not build a larger edifice out of this at this stage," he told The Straits Times.

"Given the history of our bilateral ties, it is best to be cautious but each step forward is an important one," Dr Raghavan added.

The decision to build the corridor, which Prime Minister Narendra Modi has compared to the fall of the Berlin Wall, comes after India cancelled a meeting between its external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj and her Pakistani counterpart in September after three policemen were killed in Jammu & Kashmir, an act blamed on "Pakistan-based entities".

Ms Swaraj also refused an invitation from Pakistan to attend the corridor's groundbreaking ceremony citing prior commitments. India has instead deputed two other ministers to attend the event on Wednesday.

With a length of around 4km, the road corridor will help pilgrims avoid a circuitous route via Lahore, which is located around 120km from Kartarpur.

The goal is for Indian pilgrims to be able to visit the gurdwara in Kartarpur using this corridor by November 2019, which is when Guru Nanak's 550th birth anniversary will be commemorated.

The corridor proposal regained prominence after Punjab minister and former Indian cricketer Navjot Singh Sidhu attended Mr Khan's swearing-in ceremony in August, where he met the Pakistani chief of army, General Qamar Javed Bajwa.

Mr Sidhu returned to quote the general as saying he was keen on opening the corridor.

It has, however, generated concern from some in India, including those in the security establishment. Punjab witnessed a bloody bout of secessionist violence, especially in the 1970s and early 1980s, which was blamed on support from Pakistan.

"Over the last three or four years at least, there have been concerted efforts by Pakistanis to light the fires in Punjab once again," Mr Sushant Sareen, a senior fellow at the think-tank Observer Research Foundation, told The Straits Times.

He said that India, by going ahead with the corridor at this stage, has decided to "walk into a trap" despite "tell-tale signs" of the secessionist movement again gaining "some traction".

Besides an increasing intensity of pro-secessionist slogans and banners in Pakistani gurdwaras, analysts have pointed to developments such as the call from some quarters for a referendum in 2020 to "liberate Punjab" and a series of incidents in 2015 in the state that involved the desecration of the Sikh holy book as some of these "tell-tale signs".

Monitoring an increased flow of pilgrims and their activities in Pakistan, Mr Sareen argued, will be difficult with the liberalised access that will come from this corridor.

"If security-related problems emerge tomorrow, will we close it down?" he said.

"One doesn't deal with inter-state relations, sensitive security issues and sensitive religious issues in such a cavalier manner," he added.