The politics, and the complicated dynamics, enveloping the troubled India-Pakistan relationship came into sharp focus once again at the foundation stone-laying ceremony of the “Kartarpur corridor” by Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan and the opportunity it provided to air Islamabad’s perspective on what a former Indian foreign minister termed an “accident-prone” bilateral. While Imran Khan asserted that his whole government including the Pakistan army were “on the same page to improve ties with India” and his government should not be held responsible for the past legacies that bedevil ties, India took umbrage to his invocation of the K-word, with the foreign ministry spokesman charging the Pakistani leader for choosing “to politicise a pious occasion…by making unwarranted references to Jammu and Kashmir which is an integral and inalienable part of India”. A day earlier Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj declared that India would not attend the SAARC summit in Pakistan and that there could be no dialogue with Islamabad as “talks and terror cannot go together”.
Many, hopefully, expected that the opening of the “Kartarpur corridor” across the troubled India-Pakistan international border, that will enable Indian Sikh pilgrims to visit the final resting place of their faith’s 15th century founder Guru Nanak, would introduce an unexpected thaw in the friction and animus-plagued bilateral relationship. The fact that this dramatic breakthrough was announced by Delhi on the eve of the 10th anniversary of the November 26, 2008 (26/11) terror attack on Mumbai suggested a significant and intriguing political symbolism. There was speculation that the Modi government had changed its terror-or-talks policy in relation to Pakistan but the most recent developments have belied this optimistic assessment.
The joint decision to respond to a long pending request by the Sikh community came as a welcome surprise and marks the first positive bilateral policy initiative after the high-visibility visit by Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Lahore in December 2015.
In an expansive manner, Modi described this breakthrough as the equivalent of the collapse of the Berlin Wall that heralded the end of the Cold War. But this optimism now appears be premature. Predictably the tangled reality of the bilateral relationship with its terror overhang and domestic political compulsions in India has clouded the symbolic ground- breaking ceremonies in India (November 26) and in Pakistan (November 28).
India presented a divided house reflecting the dissonances within its political parties. Sushma Swaraj did not attend the event in Pakistan and neither did Amarinder Singh, the Chief Minister of Punjab. The former cited “prior commitments” while the latter sent a more detailed missive to his Pakistani host conveying his inability to be present at what is a very major religious event for the Sikh community and the state of Punjab.
The Singh letter to Pakistan Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi highlighted two reasons for declining the invite – first the fact that “not a day passes when Indian soldiers are not killed or injured on the Line of Control in Jammu and Kashmir”; and second that “the ISI has started its nefarious activities within my State”. Amarinder Singh (a former captain in the Indian army) also cautioned the Pakistani Army Chief General Javed Bajwa on Monday (Nov 26) at the ground-breaking ceremony not to provoke India through terrorism.
However, the Modi government sent two central ministers – Hardeep Singh Puri and Harsimrat Kaur Badal, both Sikhs – to attend the event in Pakistan. The Pakistan ceremony turned out to be a ‘bromance’ between Imran Khan and fellow cricketer Navjot Singh Sidhu, ( a minister in the Punjab government led by the Congress leader Amrinder Singh ) who feted each other for enabling the Kartarpur corridor opening.
Even if Kartarpur remains a stand-alone religious initiative, this visit marks the first by Indian federal government ministers to Pakistan since 2016 and is imbued with complex and contradictory symbolism.
Support to terrorism by the ‘deep-state’ in Rawalpindi remains the heavy cross that bedevils the India-Pakistan relationship and Delhi is awaiting tangible movement by Islamabad in relation to bringing the perpetrators of the Mumbai 26/11 terror attack to justice. Pakistan continues to be convulsed by its internal demons and two terror attacks on Friday (November 23) – one in Karachi that targeted the Chinese consulate and the second in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province that killed 32 people.
The litmus test for the Pakistani government is to unequivocally sever both support and links to the various terror groups it has spawned over the last three decades but this socio-political surgery may undermine the whole foundation on which the Pakistani state rests. This is the major regional conundrum which, paradoxically, introduces some degree of correspondence for both Beijing and Delhi in relation to terrorism.
The success of the Xi Jinping-led Chinese BRI (Belt Road Initiative) is predicated on the CPEC (China-Pakistan Economic Corridor) and the terror attack on the Chinese consulate does not augur well for the long term viability of this macro connectivity-cum-trade project. Beijing’s unqualified support to Pakistan’s selective approach to terror will need objective policy review and deep structural redress.
On current evidence and the developments, Kartarpur is unlikely to be the beginning of a new page for Pakistan and the bilateral relationship – at least for now. Both India and Pakistan are poised at domestically sensitive phases in their political trajectories – Modi preparing for national elections and Imran Khan, still settling into office and perhaps overeager to prove himself like perhaps Modi was when he made a dramatic detour to Lahore on Christmas Day in 2015 to greet then Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif – and thus they will have to proceed very cautiously in building on the slender and nascent hope that Kartarpur represents.