NEW DELHI - Despite the current frosty phase in their relationship, India and Pakistan have agreed to open a visa-free religious corridor that connects Punjab in India with a key place of worship for Sikhs, or gurdwara, across the border in Pakistan.
Officials from both countries signed the agreement on Thursday at Zero Point on the international border at Dera Baba Nanak. A joint opening ceremony has been ruled out and the two sides are expected to hold separate events led by their respective prime ministers to open the corridor on November 9.
The moves comes ahead of the 550th birth anniversary of Guru Nanak, Sikhism’s founder, on November 12, an occasion when many Sikhs, including those from across the world, are expected to visit Gurdwara Darbar Sahib that is located in Pakistan’s Kartarpur, around 4.5 kilometres away from the border.
Guru Nanak spent his last 18 years in Kartarpur and the gurdwara was constructed in his honour after he died there in 1539. The erstwhile region of Punjab, where Sikhism was born, was divided in 1947 during the partition of British India. The road corridor will be open to Indian pilgrims of all faiths as well as persons of Indian origin. It will help them avoid a current circuitous route via Lahore, which is about 120km from Kartarpur.
Some of Sikhism’s important shrines are located in Pakistan and continue to be visited by thousands of pilgrims from India each year. They have long complained of harassment because of complex visa regulations and other logistical hurdles. Around 5,000 Sikh pilgrims are expected to use the corridor every day.
The opening of the Kartarpur Sahib Corridor is a rare instance of cooperation between India and Pakistan. Ties between the two countries have been especially acrimonious since February this year when India launched air strikes across the border in retaliation for a terror attack in Pulwama the same month that India had blamed on Pakistan.
India’s controversial decision to withdraw Jammu and Kashmir’s special status in August and the ensuing lockdown has also been bitterly opposed by Pakistan.
Dr TCA Raghavan, a former Indian high commissioner to Pakistan and the current director-general of the Indian Council of World Affairs, told The Straits Times that the successful conclusion of the Kartarpur corridor negotiation process showed that India-Pakistan relations “rarely move in a linear way for long”.
He pointed out that most landmark people-to-people initiatives between the two countries so far have come in the context of an upswing in ties between both countries. “That Kartarpur has come about amidst a serious downturn in relations is unusual. It shows rather the complexity of India-Pakistan interface and also how rapidly societies in both countries are changing,” he said.
He was referring to the young population in both countries who, Dr Raghavan added, “have a new set of aspirations and want to get on with other things”.
The opening of the corridor has, however, not been without differences between the two countries. India has opposed Pakistan’s decision to levy a service fee of US$20 (S$27) per pilgrim per visit, only to accept it grudgingly in the agreement.
Describing it as a “matter of disappointment”, a press statement from the Indian Ministry of External Affairs on October 21 urged Pakistan not to levy such a fee “in deference to the wishes of the pilgrims” and said it would be willing to amend the agreement if such a decision is taken by Pakistan. The current visa fee for Indians to enter Pakistan is 120 rupees (S$2.30).
The opening of the corridor has also been opposed by some in India because of Pakistan’s adversarial stance.
“Pakistan not only exports terrorism to India but also has downgraded diplomatic relations with India, suspended bilateral trade, and cut off transportation links and postal services. Yet India agrees to sign a pilgrims’ corridor agreement with Pakistan on the latter’s terms,” tweeted Professor Brahma Chellaney, a strategic affairs analyst, on October 22.
The corridor has also prompted concerns of a possible revival of Sikh militancy in Punjab. The Indian state hadwitnessed a bloody bout of secessionist violence, especially in the 1970s and early 1980s, which was blamed on support from Pakistan.
Professor Chellaney later told The Straits Times: “As the Chief Minister of Punjab has pointed out publicly, this project was conceived by the Pakistan army and ISI (the country’s intelligence agency) much before Imran Khan came to office. This is a Pakistan military project to revive Sikh militancy in India.”