Why Kartarpur corridor is unlikely to defuse India-Pakistan tensions

Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan is set to inaugurate the first-ever visa-free border crossing between Pakistan and India on Saturday, November 9. The corridor will link Dera Baba Nanak in Indian Punjab's Gurdaspur district to Kartarpur in Pakistan's Narowal district, where one of the holiest shrines of the Sikh religion — the Gurdwara Darbar Sahib — is located.

Guru Nanak, the founder of the Sikh religion, spent the last 18 years of his life in Kartarpur, and the shrine was built after he died in the 16th century. Located just four kilometers (2.5 miles) inside Pakistan, the sacred shrine is visible from the Indian side of the border.

Sikhism originates from the Punjab region, which was divided between India and Pakistan when the two countries gained independence from British rule in 1947. And the Sikh community has long demanded the building of a road link connecting the two sites and easing of travel permits.

In November last year, PM Khan performed the groundbreaking of the long-awaited corridor.

"It is like a dream come true. The Pakistani government fulfilled its pledge to the Sikh community in a short period. It [the Kartarpur corridor] is a mega project. Such a huge project has never been accomplished in such a short time in Pakistan's history," Sardar Gobind Singh, the caretaker of Sikh temples in Kartarpur, told DW.

Former Indian PM Manmohan Singh is expected to attend the corridor's inauguration ceremony along with other Indian delegates. Indian PM Narendra Modi will see off the first group of pilgrims, and they will be welcomed by Pakistani PM Khan at the shrine.

'Project of peace'

On Thursday, Pakistan's Foreign Ministry said that PM Khan waived the requirement that Indian pilgrims carry passports to travel to Kartarpur. The ministry spokesperson said the waiver would be in force for a year and was intended to facilitate Indian Sikh pilgrims to visit the sacred shrine in the wake of the 550th birth anniversary of Guru Nanak.

"For Sikhs coming for pilgrimage to Kartarpur from India, I have waived off two requirements: 1) they won't need a passport — just a valid ID; 2) they no longer have to register 10 days in advance. Also, no fee to be charged on day of inauguration and on Guruji's 550th birthday," PM Khan tweeted on November 1.

The project has been dubbed a milestone of peace between India and Pakistan, two South Asian neighbors with an acrimonious history.

"Earlier this week, over 1,700 Sikh pilgrims came to Kartarpur from all over the world, including Canada, England and India. They were overwhelmed, and some of them were even crying. They thanked the Pakistani government for this gift to the Sikh community," Atif Majeed, the project head for the Kartarpur corridor, told DW.

Pakistan's minister for science and technology, Fawad Chaudhry, said Thursday that Kartarpur would "promote the soft image of Pakistan across the globe."

Navjot Singh Sidhu, a prominent politician from India's Punjab province, told DW last year that the Kartarpur project was "a monumental step" that could "prove to be a path of peace in the long run."

Pakistan's ulterior motives?

Islamist parties in Pakistan have slammed the govenment's decision to open the Kartarpur corridor, saying it is tantamount to turning a blind eye to India's abrogation of Kashmir's speical status on August 5.

Some groups in the country also believe that the visa-free border crossing would be a compromise on national sovereignty.

It is indeed surprising that Khan not only allowed the construction of the corridor, but also worked on it vigorously, considering the fact that his political rival and former PM Nawaz Sharif was one of the architects of the passage.

It was Sharif and former Indian PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee who proposed the Kartarpur corridor in early 1999, as part of their Delhi–Lahore Bus diplomacy. But soon after the signing of the Lahore Declaration, the Pakistani military ousted Sharif in a bloodless coup. Experts say that Sharif was "punished" for trying to improve ties with India.

Against the backdrop of recent Kashmir events, the November 9 Kartarpur corridor opening is even more surprising.

"The Kartarpur discussion has survived at least two bilateral crises. We had Pulwama [a militant attack in India-administered Kashmir] in February, and we continued to have this conversation [on Kartarpur] despite the events," India's The Print news portal quoted a government official as saying.

"In August, we had Article 370 [the abrogation of Kashmir's special status] and Pakistan escalated the rhetoric on everything else but the Kartarpur corridor project. That is a testimony to the fact that powers larger than the democratic or civilian leadership of Pakistan have been pushing it," the official added.

The official suggested that through Kartarpur, Islamabad aims to build "leverage and possibly promote a separatist movement in (Indian) Punjab."

The "Khalistan" separatist movement in Indian Punjab is a decades-old issue, with Indian authorities often accusing Pakistan of backing it. Indian officials also slammed Pakistan for showing Khalistan supporters on a poster in the official video on the Kartarpur corridor.

Tensions to remain high

Despite the unpecedent Kartarpur move, observers say ties between India and Pakistan are likely to remain tense.

While Islamabad accuses New Delhi of committing grave human rights violations in the Indian-controlled part of Kashmir, India alleges that Pakistan continues to support militant Islamists in the disputed Himalayan region.

Pakistan has been under growing international pressure to act against terrorists operating from its soil, allegedly with support of its intelligence agencies. The US criticizes Islamabad for not taking adequate measures to rein in Islamists despite receiving aid worth billions of dollars.

However, Harris Khalique, the secretary-general of the non-governmental Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), believes that India-Pakistan disputes need to be "humanized" and that the Kartarpur initiative is a welcome move.

"Pakistan went an extra mile, which is commendable. But the Kartarpur corridor is an isolated move. It will have little or no impact on other bilateral disputes. But I believe that in the long run, such initiatives are always useful," he told DW.