Kartarpur Corridor
Kartarpur Corridor
ANI Photo

A year ago, the Kartarpur Corridor was described as a 'road to peace' between India and Pakistan. Today, the Kartarpur Corridor remains a live, de facto diplomatic channel between the two countries, even after the downgrading of diplomatic missions and suspension of bilateral trade and cross-border trains and buses.

The concluding round of talks on the Kartarpur Corridor, held at the Attari border on Wednesday, fell short of a final agreement, with Pakistan digging in its heels on the contentious issues of a per-head service fee and protocol officers to assist pilgrims.

However, substantive and technical issues like visa-free access all year-round, the joint construction of a bridge and a temporary service road and distribution of langar have been settled.

Pakistan has promised to inaugurate the Kartarpur Corridor–which will allow Indian pilgrims access to Sikh shrines in that country–ahead of the 550th birth anniversary of Guru Nanak. Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan made a statement to that effect earlier this week. Hopefully, he will live up to it.

Khan's commitment doesn't stem from any new-found sensitivity vis-a-vis Sikh sentiments. It was obviously intended to pacify international outrage over the recent kidnapping and forced conversion of Sikh girls in Pakistan.

The world is under no illusions regarding the Pakistani state's attitude towards the Sikhs within its borders. The inexorable shrinking of the Sikh community there testifies to its abysmal human rights record.

Of the 40,000 Sikhs in Pakistan at the turn of the millennium, less than a quarter remain, activists say. This, despite an influx of Sikh refugees from Afghanistan.

Naturally, Sikh representation in the Pakistani armed forces and government is virtually non-existent (Major Hercharn Singh was the first Sikh officer to be commissioned, in 2007).

But time and again, this miniscule community has been deployed by Pakistan to whip up 'Khalistan' rhetoric, the latest being a video by a 'Pakistani Sikh leader' supporting its stand on Kashmir.

These are desperate and futile stratagems, given that the 'Khalistan' sentiment is dead and buried and has zero resonance in Punjab or anywhere else in India.

Chief minister Capt Amarinder Singh is a staunchly nationalist war veteran, who isn't prepared to give an inch to potential dissidents. That said, he is as keen as any other denizen of Punjab that the Kartarpur Corridor materializes by Gurpurub (November 12) of this year.

The Radcliffe Line put the birthplace of Guru Nanak, Nankana Sahib, and his last resting place, Darbar Sahib in Kartarpur, out of India's reach. Just four-odd kms from the border, Kartarpur Sahib is clearly visible from Indian soil. At one point, a land swap enabling Kartarpur to become a part of India was proposed, but came to nothing.

Two other gurudwaras in Pakistan commemorate legendary events in Nanak's life. Sacha Sauda Sahib marks Guru Nanak's 18th year, when he fed and clothed the hungry and needy.

Gurudwara Panja Sahib at Hasan Abdal boasts a rock with a handprint, believed to be that of Guru Nanak; legend has it that he stopped the rock, hurled down a hill towards his devotees, with his hand. Thus, several of the most important sites in the Sikh pilgrimage tour are in Pakistan.

The Kartarpur Corridor links Darbar Sahib with Dera Baba Nanak, a border town founded by the Bedi community to which Nanak belonged. Although the Corridor was first mooted in 1999, the foundation stone was laid only last year.

The importance of 6-km corridor, however, goes far beyond geography. By going forward with the Corridor, the current dispensation in Pakistan wants to demonstrate that it has the political will to take one small step towards normalizing relations with India.

It has realized that it cannot leverage the Corridor in bilateral dialogue with India, which remains firm that only cessation of terrorist activities can be a starting point.

The fact that the talks were held in the backdrop of Pakistani protestors besieging the Indian High Commission in London–for the second time in a month– and renewed efforts by infiltrators to vitiate the atmosphere in the Kashmir Valley, vindicates the Indian government's stand of separating the issue of bilateral dialogue from the Kartarpur Corridor.

Nevertheless, in a troubled history marked by unresolved conflicts, simmering resentment, false promises and intense distrust, the Kartarpur Corridor has the potential of being the first real breakthrough. Religious diplomacy can go a long way in showing positive intent.

It might be useful, in these turbulent times marked by nuclear sabre-rattling, to recall the legend of Guru Nanak's demise. As he prepared for his final journey, both Muslims and Sikhs claimed his remains.

The Guru compromised; his physical form disappeared, leaving two mounds of flowers. The Muslims claimed one and the Sikhs the other. The shrine at Kartarpur thus has a grave and a samadhi. Pakistan would do well to heed the old saying: religion divides but faith unites.

Bhavdeep Kang is a senior journalist with 35 years of experience in working with major newspapers and magazines. She is now an independent writer and author.

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