The November 12, 2019 opening of Kartarpur Corridor is a true “butterfly event” with far-reaching consequences. It is a stroke of political genius and diplomatic skill. Nobody thought two cricketers from across Indo-Pakistan would be instrumental in thawing a people-to-people relationship, frozen in time. Sikhs from a predominantly Hindu India and Muslims from Pakistan reached out across the dividing line in a history-altering handshake. Pakistan’s ability to facilitate, build and operate the four kilometres (km) long corridor, jetting into the Narowal district of Pakistani Punjab — despite hostility from India — is a diplomatic coup. This write-up aims at discussing the geo-political, economic and military implications of this epoch-making initiative.
Politically, from signing the agreement on October 24, 2019 — after complicated and snag-prone protracted negotiations — to opening the Corridor on November 12, 2019, this enterprise has enabled, on a daily basis, up to 10,000 Sikh yatrees (pilgrims) from India and around the world to visit Gurdwara Kartarpur Sahib, the second holiest site of Sikhism, without a visa for the first time after the mayhem of the 1947 Partition. The corridor now connects Gurdwara Darbar Sahib Kartarpur, the last resting place of Baba Guru Nanak Dev Ji (1469-1539), the founder of Sikhism, with Dera Baba Nanak Sahib, another holy site in Indian Punjab. The 42-acre shrine where Baba Guru Nanak spent the last 18 years of his life was destroyed by floods and rebuilt in 1925.
Historically, Pakistan has as much as 150 of Sikhism’s holy sites mainly concentrated in Punjab and visited by the Sikh community from around the world. Gurdwara Janam Asthan (also known as Nankana Sahib) near Sheikhupura — the Guru’s birthplace — Dera Sahab and Samadhi in Lahore, and Gurdwara Punja Sahab in Hasan Abdal draw millions of Sikh followers. Pakistan has restored over 20 such places of worship and is planning to renovate others to promote religious tourism.
Religious tourism like eco-tourism is a niche enterprise. As per the Governor of Punjab, Muhammad Sarwar, it can bring up to $5 billion per annum. However, reportedly there are impediments on the Indian side for Sikh yatrees visiting Pakistan, especially Kartarpur. Since inauguration, the flow has barely exceeded 1,000 pilgrims a day. From the Pakistani side, the Kartarpur project is state of the art with over 100 immigration countres, electric cars to ferry the yatrees through, and plans for shopping malls and low-cost hotels besides other facilities. Given the economic benefit to Pakistan — a levy of $20 per yatree per visit — the Indian intransigence is understandable. There are also elements of the religious right within Pakistan who see this corridor as a manifestation of the ulterior design of Greater Punjab, comprising Punjabis on both sides and Ahmedis.
From a legacy standpoint, Punjab attracts Sikh affinity given that Lahore was the seat of the government of the only Sikh Empire (1799-1849) under Ranjeet Singh. Cultural affinity among both parts of East and West Punjab — irrespective of the religion — is discernable. This provides some context to the violence and mayhem of Partition, which was mainly concentrated in Punjab. The Sikh-led bloodletting was mainly because of losing their erstwhile seat of government along with a sizeable chunk of territory having their holy sites to Pakistan. And of course the Sikh sentiments were stirred by Hindu manipulations and machinations.
This bold initiative, over time and if handled properly, has a silver lining for peace and amity between India and Pakistan. Manmohan Singh, a former Indian prime minister while speaking to PTV after crossing the international border as head of a Sikh yatrees’ delegation, expressed hope that: “India and Pakistan relations [will] improve as a result of this beginning.” He was accompanied by the Chief Minister of Indian Punjab, Amarinder Singh. Indian PM Modi thanked Pakistan’s PM Imran Khan “for understanding India’s wishes and turning Kartarpur into reality”. Apparently, the Indian establishment grudgingly acceded to the corridor, bowing to the Sikh sentiment domestically and internationally, in an effort to heal the wounds inflicted through incidents like the Indian Army’s attack on the Golden Temple in Amritsar in 1984, killing over 300 Sikhs; the retaliatory assassination of Indira Gandhi in October of the same year by Sikh soldiers; and the revenge killings of over 3,000 Sikhs across India. With the Sikh diaspora expressing solidarity with Pakistan’s Kashmir cause and the planning of “Referendum-2020” by the US-based group, Sikhs for Justice demanding an independent Khalistan, the Indian government had limited choice but to go along with the overall corridor initiative.
Demographically, out of over 27 million Sikhs worldwide, over 20 million reside in India, where a staggering 76% live in Punjab making up two-thirds of the state population. They are still disproportionately represented in the Indian Security Forces. Being at two per cent of the Indian population, Sikh officers in 1947 made up 50% of the army officer cadre and 38% of the air force. Today they form 20% of the Indian military. And notwithstanding the rash bravado of General Bipin Rawat, the Indian Army Chief and a native of Uttarkhand, any future conflict between India and Pakistan is more than likely to escalate into a nuclear exchange. An earlier article by this author titled, “General Rawat’s Dangerous Ambition”, published in this space on October 29, 2019, reasons in detail the thinking matrix of the Indian military. Punjab, the Sikh homeland state, has in previous wars and will likely in the future conflict, bear the brunt of fighting. Like our Punjabi population, Sikhs have a strong military tradition and are affected most in a conflict — fighting in it, and living through it. The “Punjab Buffer” fits well into our strategic calculus and extends our perimeter of security and effect. Punjab produces 73% of India’s wheat and 48% of its rice.
So putting together the religio-historical, political, demographic and geo-strategic dimensions of the Kartarpur opening, it is a masterstroke and if handled correctly, has the potential to placate the Sikh component of India and its armed forces. Seizing this one in a million opportunity would most likely usher in peace for the one-fourth of humanity that lives in the SAARC countries in general and India and Pakistan in particular. Baba Guru Nanak said, “Dwell in peace in the home of your own being, and the messenger of death will not be able to touch you.” He also reiterates, “Before becoming a Muslim, a Sikh, a Hindu or a Christian, let’s become a human first.”
Published in The Express Tribune, November 19th, 2019.