Punjab Chief Minister Capt Amarinder Singh
Punjab Chief Minister Capt Amarinder Singh addresses during the foundation stone laying ceremony for Gurdwara Kartarpur Sahib Corridor, at Dera Baba Nanak, in Gurdaspur, Monday, November 26, 2018. Image Credit: PTI

Pakistan’s decision to open and construct a direct corridor from the Indian border to the Kartarpur Sahib Sikh shrine in Pakistan is a significant event. How did it come about? What is its religious significance? What can it lead to in the often tense relations between these two nuclear armed nations?

The Gurudwara was built to commemorate the site where Guru Nanak, founder of Sikhism, settled after his missionary work. He assembled a Sikh community there, and lived for 18 years until his death in 1539. It is 4km from and within sight of the border; and the Sikh community has long demanded that they be able to walk to this major shrine directly from Dera Baba Nanak in India rather than through the Wagah border crossing.

There was neither a positive response from the Pakistan government nor any request from the Indian government, due to security concerns. When Imran Khan became prime minister this summer, in his inauguration speech he called for better relations with India: stating that if India took one step forward, Pakistan would reciprocate with one and a half. He wrote to the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi with a road map for discussing all disputes and calling for talks. A meeting between the two foreign ministers was set until India pulled back, cancelling it.

However at the PM’s inauguration, his cricketing friend turned politician Navjot Singh Sidhu was assured both by Imran Khan and General Qamar Javed Bajwa, Army Chief, that Pakistan would open the Kartarpur corridor and complete its construction by Guru Nanak’s 550th birth anniversary next year. Sidhu was criticised by some but his efforts were highly appreciated in East Punjab.

The Indian government was in a quandary, displeased with this development but unwilling to alienate the Sikh sentiment. Finally it accepted the proposal; announcing it would construct the road on its side, and send two ministers to the groundbreaking ceremony by Imran Khan on Pakistan’s side. The East Punjab government invited the speaker of Pakistan’s Punjab Assembly to its inauguration ceremony.

For long, India, not Pakistan, pushed people-to-people contacts. But in the last formal talks, five years ago, it was Pakistan that called for more people-to-people contacts.

The potential for religious visits is huge. Under the 1974 bilateral Protocol, group visas can be granted to 27 religious shrines in India and 37 in Pakistan. Most visits take place on specific religious festivals or other ceremonies, and cover more than one shrine. The reality is that for logistic, security, and other reasons — including the political climate — there are informal caps on the visas accorded.

The Kartarpur opening was a bold and wise move by Pakistan, with all stakeholders onboard and aware there would be criticism of ignoring the Kashmir overhang. But as the Pakistani foreign minister said in Parliament, both countries need a more humane approach, and had been encouraging that Kashmir is also a priority. Agreements to permit families crossing over and for cross ‘line of control’ trade, are in place but restrictively applied and need to be liberalised. Talks between Pakistan and India on logistics, visa, and other details of the Kartarpur corridor now have to take place, a change from the past five years of no talks despite Pakistan’s reiterated proposals. The overall significance of this development is twofold. East Punjab with the Sikhs’ agrarian orientation has missed out on industrialisation elsewhere, and being a potential conflict zone it is also investment shy. Thirty years ago it was the granary of India but comparative economic indicators have dropped. It would thus benefit from better India-Pakistan relations. And apart from the Sikh emotional attachment to most of their shrines now in Pakistan, culturally — with spoken Punjabi and the great Punjabi poets — there is a foundation for shared inter-Punjab contacts to foster understanding on both sides.

On the national level there are hard truths however difficult they are to accept. India may become more economically and militarily powerful, but expecting Pakistan to be cowed down would be a mistake. Rather it would lead to more instability in South Asia.

Both countries face similar problems: environmental vulnerability, water scarcity, inequitable income distribution, high unemployment levels, and development distortions due to defence threat perceptions. For India, despite China’s size and growing influence, it is of much less real concern than Pakistan. To adequately address the needs of their people, both countries require stability in their relationship. Modi appears to be aware of that and has on occasion reached out to Pakistan but his hands are tied by the dynamics of his party till the national elections are over. One hopes the Kartarpur opening is a step towards peace.

Tariq Osman Hyder is a former ambassador who led Pakistan’s delegation in Nuclear and Conventional CBM negotiations with India 2004-2007.