New Delhi, Islamabad Jostle for Credit as Kartarpur Sahib Corridor Gets Green Signal

India has proposed a round-the-clock, 365 days cross-border passage for pilgrims, with “free and readily available consular access for Indian citizens on the Pakistani side”.

New Delhi: The green-lighting of the Kartarpur Sahib corridor project on Thursday has led to a scramble for credit between India and Pakistan – and also among the domestic political players in Punjab, with an eye towards elections.

To mark the 550th birth anniversary of Guru Nanak Dev in 2019, the Union cabinet announced a slew of measures, with development of a visa-free Kartarpur Sahib pilgrimage corridor across the border on top of the list.

A government press release said the cabinet took a “significant decision” to approve “the implementation of the corridor from Dera Baba Nanak in Gurdaspur district to the international border”.

The Indian proposal is for a round-the-clock, 365 days cross-border passage for pilgrims, with “free and readily available consular access for Indian citizens on the Pakistani side”.

Thereafter, Ministry of External Affairs spokesperson Raveesh Kumar said keeping with the cabinet resolution, India has “approached and urged the Pakistan government to recognize the sentiments of Sikh community and build a corridor with suitable facilities in their territory to facilitate easy and smooth visits of pilgrims from India to Kartarpur Sahib throughout the year”.

Pakistan’s reaction was to welcome the Indian decision by claiming that they were the ones who had initiated the project – and were already ahead of New Delhi in implementation.

Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan. Credit: Reuters

Foreign minister S.M. Qureshi said Pakistan had “already conveyed” to India about its decision to open the corridor, with Prime Minister Imran Khan scheduled to “break ground” on the construction on November 28.

Pakistani information minister Fawad Chaudhry described the Indian cabinet decision as “an endorsement of Pakistan’s proposition”.

The opposition Pakistan People’s Party claimed in a statement it was Benazir Bhutto who had “first proposed to grant a visa-less free corridor to Kartarpur shrine from the Indian border”.

A day earlier, Pakistani newspaper Express Tribune had reported the plan for Imran Khan to lay the foundation stone this month. Quoting anonymous officials, the report said a survey had already been conducted and construction will be completed by 2019.

Indian officials expressed outrage at suggestions that the cabinet decision was taken to pre-empt the official Pakistani announcement of a foundation stone ceremony by Imran Khan.

“Any suggestion that the corridor or the celebrations are being planned as a response to a Pakistani proposal is not only preposterous but also hurtful to the sentiments of the Sikh community,” said sources.

Former PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee first raised the matter of a corridor for visa-free visit by Indian pilgrims to Gurudwara Dera Baba Nanak. Credit: PTI

They claimed the cabinet resolution was preceded by weeks of “internal consultations”. “The cabinet usually meets on Wednesday, but due to the national holiday on account of Milad-un Nabi, the it met today and approved the resolution,” the sources asserted.

They also rejected claims that the Kartarpur project was proposed by Pakistan.

For the Indian side, the timeline begins in 1999, when the then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee was the “first” to raise the matter of a corridor for visa-free visit by Indian pilgrims to Gurudwara Dera Baba Nanak during his historic Lahore trip. But there had been no response from Pakistani, as per the MEA.

Five years later, the then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh announced the provision of a corridor to Kartarpur Sahib on the occasion of the 400th anniversary of Prakash Utsav, which marks the installation of the holy Guru Granth Sahib at the Golden Temple.

Bengaluru: Former prime minister Manmohan Singh addresses a press meet at Karnataka Pradesh Congress Committee office during his visit to the state, ahead of the Assembly polls, in Bengaluru on Monday. Credit: PTI Photo by Shailendra Bhojak

Former prime minister Manmohan Singh. Credit: PTI/Shailendra Bhojak/File

In September 2004, Indian foreign secretary Shyam Saran requested his counterpart to include Kartarpur Sahib on the list of shrines of the 1974 bilateral protocol on visits to religious shrines. “This was not agreed by the Pakistani side,” the MEA spokesperson said, unravelling the “sequential” evolution of the proposal.

Pakistan further rejected the Indian pitch for inclusion of Kartarpur Sahib when the 1974 protocol was amended with three additional shrines in 2005, he claimed.

In 2008, the then external affairs minister S.M. Krishna also “raised the issue” during his visit to Pakistan with his Pakistani counterpart, Qureshi. “However, we did not receive any official response from the Pakistani side since then,” MEA spokesperson Ravish Kumar said in September.

Ten years later, the proposal of the Kartarpur Sahib has gathered momentum in Punjab, with the Congress-led state government and NDA ally Shiromani Akali Dal using it to make political hay.

When Congress lawmaker, Navjot Singh Sidhu attended the inauguration of Prime Minister Imran Khan in Islamabad in August, he shared an embrace with the Pakistani army chief Qamar Javed Bajwa.

After returning to India, Sidhu said that Bajwa told him to open the route to Gurudwara Darbar Sahib at Kartarpur to coincide with the 550th birth anniversary of Guru Nanak.

Navjot Singh Sidhu. Credit: PTI

This led to a political free-fall in Punjab, with the opposition as well as BJP members targeting Sidhu for sharing a hug with the army chief.

When Sidhu met external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj, sources say he was rebuked for meddling in a “sensitive issue” of Kartarpur corridor project.

There was pique in Siromani Akali Dal (SAD) that Sidhu was taking lion’s share of the limelight.

During a briefing, MEA spokesperson specifically mentioned on a question on Kartarpur Sahib corridor that Union minister Harsimrat Kaur Badal, daughter-in-law of the SAD chief, had written to Swaraj to take up the matter with Pakistan. There was no reference of Sidhu’s conversation with Bajwa, petitions from other leaders or the Punjab assembly resolution on the project.

Also read: Complaint Filed Against Sidhu in Bihar Court for Hugging Pak Army Chief

When India had first agreed to Khan’s proposal for meeting of foreign ministers in New York, the only item on the agenda that MEA was able to confirm was the Kartarpur corridor.

“Even now, after so many years, we do not have any official communication from the Pakistani government that they are willing to consider this matter. EAM will therefore raise this issue in her meeting with Pakistani foreign minister on the sidelines of UNGA,” said MEA spokesperson on September 20.

A day later, India cancelled the meeting of the foreign ministers. The ensuing verbal exchange seemingly buried any green shoots in the deadlocked relationship.

This month, Punjab chief minister Amarinder Singh urged Swaraj to take up the corridor issue with Pakistan, reminding her that the state assembly had passed a resolution in August.

Singh, Badal and Sidhu welcomed the cabinet decision on Thursday, all of them jostling to take credit by association.

The operationalisation of the Kartarpur Sahib corridor would require amendment of the 1974 protocol.

Indian official sources said New Delhi wants a “full-fledged” corridor to allow for “maximum movement” throughout the year and not just on special occasions.

The “main points” for the Indian proposal is that the corridor should be open “365 days, 24 hours”, with no restriction on number of pilgrims travelling across the border.

Also read: Pak Claims Modi Wrote to Khan That ‘Constructive Engagement’ Is the Only Way Forward

The distance between Dera Baba Nanak in Gurdaspur district and Gurudwara Darbar Sahib at Kartarpur is around four kilometres.

“There must be free and readily available consular access for Indian citizens on the Pakistani side,” added sources.

This could be a difficult condition since Indian high commission officials have frequently complained of not being allowed access to Indian pilgrims who visit Pakistani gurudwaras. Even the Indian high commissioner was barred in June this year.

The latest incidents of restrictions on Indian officials reportedly took place at Nankana Sahib on Thursday morning and Gurudwara Saccha Sauda on Wednesday night.

“Despite the harassment that pilgrims face on the Pakistani side, with the display of Khalistani posters or through the lack of access to consular officials, Sikh pilgrims continue to make the difficult journey. Our proposal is so that the burden of pilgrims can be eased significantly,” asserted official sources in New Delhi.