India-Pakistan: The Berlin Wall Moment is Still Far Away
The six kilometre Kartarpur corridor that will connect the Indian state of Punjab with the holy Sikh shrine in Pakistan—the much revered Kartarpur Sahib—the final resting place of Guru Nanak, the founder of the Sikh faith, was inaugurated formally through foundation—stone laying ceremonies in both countries.
Indian Vice President Venkiah Naidu did the honours on the Indian side on 26 November and declared: “The corridor will become a symbol of love and peace between both countries.” At the ceremony, Naidu was accompanied by the Chief Minister of Punjab, Captain Amarinder Singh, who introduced a discordant note about Pakistan and the support to terrorism but the overall mood was positive.
Pakistan’s Prime Minister, Imran Khan, held a more expansive event on 28 November and was eloquent in asking: “If France and Germany who fought several wars can live in peace, why can’t India and Pakistan?” Earlier, India’s Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, praised the Kartarpur initiative and went to the extent of comparing it with the fall of the Berlin Wall, which added to the optimism that was triggered.
When New Delhi and Islamabad made swift back—to—back announcements about the opening of the Kartarpur corridor to mark the 550th birth anniversary of Guru Nanak (April 2019), it was assumed that some back—channel negotiation was ongoing and that religious diplomacy would facilitate some kind of political breakthrough to the long stalled bilateral dialogue.
However, the choice of the date for the Indian ground—breaking ceremony in the Gurdaspur district—26 November—coincided with the tenth anniversary of the 2008 terror attacks in Mumbai (26/11) and the symbolism was intriguing. Why did New Delhi decide on this date? Was there any review and change to India’s stated policy that support to terror and talks cannot go together? Speculation began that maybe India would attend the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) Summit scheduled to be held in Pakistan and the optimism was growing.
However, within hours, there was a reality check and a number of contradictory developments and statements emerged. First, India’s External Affairs Minister. Sushma Swaraj, confirmed that she would not attend the ceremonies in Pakistan and Punjab’s Chief Minister Singh who had also been invited, declined to attend too. In his remarks, Singh drew attention to the terrorism and separatism being supported by Pakistan’s Inter—Services Intelligence (ISI) and publicly cautioned Pakistan’s Army Chief, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, not to provoke India. Soon after Swaraj also confirmed that there were no plans for India to attend the SAARC summit and asserted that ‘terror and talks’ cannot go together.
Yet, to respect the Sikh sentiment, the Modi government chose to send two central ministers–Harsimrat Kaur Badal and Hardeep Singh Puri–to Pakistan with a message that Kartarpur was a stand—alone religious initiative and not to be linked with any other aspect of the uneasy bilateral relationship. Concurrently there was internal dissonance within the Congress party in the Punjab government, for junior minister and cricketer—turned politician Navjot Singh Sidhu (formerly with the Bharatiya Janata Party and who had first brought Kartarpur into the public domain in August 2018 when he attended Khan’s swearing—in ceremony to the office of Pakistan’s prime minister) became the Indian face at Kartarpur. It was evident that Amarinder Singh was not enthused with this participation by Sidhu but this is indicative of the current political dynamic in the state over Kartarpur.
If India represented a divided (and confused?) constituency, the event in Pakistan was marred by the presence of the pro—Khalistan leader Gopal Chawla, and his photograph with Sidhu generated controversy in India. The Khan’s reference to Kashmir in his remarks was criticised by the Indian Ministry of External Affairs and in short, the sudden hope that was generated in the early stages of the Kartarpur announcement was short—lived.
In a subsequent interaction with visiting Indian journalists, Khan exhorted India to make a fresh start to revive the stalled bilateral dialogue with Pakistan. He responded to questions about terrorism, 26/11 and Hafiz Saeed but presented a contradictory posture on the ‘core’ issue of state support to terrorism.
While maintaining what Islamabad always says in public—that Pakistan does not support terrorism or allows its soil to be used to export terror (a claim that is rejected by both Afghanistan and India)—Khan tried to downplay the Hafiz Saeed issue by claiming that the 26/11 case is sub judice in Pakistan and that his government had clamped down on Saeed and his group.
Khan’s contradictory positions on terrorism was visible even when his party, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) was in power in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province after the 2013 election and Peshawar was rocked by terror attacks. At the time, instead of taking a firm stand against the terror groups, as the leader of the PTI, Khan urged talks with the Taliban.
In his first 100 days as prime minister, Khan also rejected US President Trump’s admonition about Islamabad supporting terror groups. Ironically, on 26 November 2018–the 10th anniversary of 26/11–Imran Khan also addressed a gathering in North Waziristan where he noted: “We have fought an imposed war inside our country as our war at a very heavy cost of sweat and blood and lose to our socio—economic fibre. We shall not fight any such war again inside Pakistan.”
Believing that Pakistan is a victim of an ‘imposed war’ and living in denial about the eco—system that Rawalpindi has nurtured for decades to support terror groups selectively is the strongly held internal narrative that Imran Khan has to discard for any meaningful movement in the bilateral dialogue with India. Until then, Kartarpur is likely to remain a standalone initiative in the run—up to the 550th birth anniversary of Guru Nanak.
The Berlin Wall moment is clearly far away.