Kartarpur (Pakistan): In the presence of thousands of Indian pilgrims at the ground-breaking ceremony of the Kartarpur Sahib corridor on November 28, Pakistan prime minister Imran Khan said the two nuclear armed neighbours can never go to war and reiterated his offer of ‘one step by you, two steps by us’.
In his speech, Khan mentioned that Kashmir was the “only” issue for Pakistan. The Indian ministry of external affairs spokesperson immediately issued a statement in Delhi that it was “regrettable” that Pakistan prime minister chose to “politicise a pious occasion”.
The ceremony for laying the foundation stone for the much-awaited visa-free corridor – linking Gurudwara Darbar Sahib in Pakistan’s Kartapur to the Dera Baba Nanak shrine in India’s Gurdaspur district – was held in Kartarpur, Pakistan.
The foundation stone of the corridor on the Indian side in Dera Baba Nanak was laid by Vice President M. Venkaiah Naidu on Monday.
Imran Khan, quoting a couplet of Munir Niazi, said that it was time to go beyond the “blame game” and “point scoring”, adding, “We take one step forward and then go back two steps.”
During his address, Khan called for the past to be forgotten. Citing the example of France and Germany, which have become good neighbours without any hangover of war, he said, “We have certainly not conducted any massacres like they have”.
Whenever he had visited India in the past, the prime minister said he encountered a common refrain – that it was the military in Pakistan that did not want peace. “I want to declare,” he said, “that the prime minister, political parties, army are all on the same page [on outreach towards India].”
Pakistan army chief of staff, Qamar Javed Bajwa had told Punjab state minister Navjot Singh Sidhu during the inauguration of Prime Minister Imran Khan in August that the dormant demand for the Kartarpur corridor should be revived.
General Bajwa even flew in to attend the ground breaking ceremony, but left immediately. However, the army chief was mentioned as one of the architects of the project by all the speakers, except Indian union minister Harsimrat Singh Badal.
Khan said that Pakistan wants to “go ahead”. “We want a civilised relationship,” he added.
He reiterated his outreach offer to India made in his first speech after his electoral victory. “If you take one step towards us, we will take two steps”.
India and Pakistan have no choice but to talk to each other, he asserted. “Both countries are nuclear armed; we have atomic weapons and there cannot be a war. It is madness for such countries to think of war. It is a foolish individual who thinks anyone can win an atomic war,” he said.
Khan noted that Pakistan had just one issue – of Kashmir. “We can fix it if we have [the] desire to fix it. Man had gone to the moon and surely we can solve this also.”
In New Delhi, MEA spokesperson Raveesh Kumar reacted sharply. “It is deeply regrettable that the prime minister of Pakistan choose to politicise a pious occasion meant to realise the long pending demanding of the Sikh community to develop a corridor to Kartarpur by making an unwarranted reference to Jammu and Kashmir, which is an integral and inalienable part of India,” he said.
He noted that Pakistan must “fulfil its international obligations and take effective and credible action to stop providing shelter and all kinds of support to cross border terrorism from territories under its control”.
Imran Khan asserted that a requirement for successful bilateral outreach is “strong, decisive governments” on both sides. “We need determination and big dreams.”
Earlier in the morning, external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj had set the tone for India’s lukewarm response. Speaking to reporters in Telangana, Swaraj said that the latest developments did not herald the resumption of dialogue process. She reiterated that talks and terror cannot go together.
‘Sidhu can win any elections in Pakistan’
The nine-minute short video that preceded the speeches claimed that Pakistan has been pro-active in protecting the assets of minorities. It also showed an animated version of Pakistan’s circulation plan for pilgrims after the corridor project was completed.
Imran Khan’s face and voice featured extensively in the video, but so did Navjot Singh Sidhu’s.
The Indian cricketer-turned-politician was seated just one person away from Imran Khan in the front row. However, Harsimrat Badal and Hardeep Singh Puri sat some distance away from Khan.
In his speech delivered in a mixture of Punjabi and Hindi, Sidhu was greeted by applause and chants of ‘bole so nihal sat sri akal’. Khan latter quipped that he did not know that his ‘friend’ was such a connoisseur of Sufi poetry.
Khan defended Sidhu, who faced criticism from the BJP in India for embracing the Pakistani army chief in August. “I never understood it. What crime did he do?”. One of Sidhu’s sharpest critics, Harsimrat Singh Badal maintained a poker face in the audience, even as the camera focused on her.
Earlier, Pakistani religious affairs minister Noor ul Haq Qadri said that Sidhu and Bajwa’s ‘jhappi’ had created magic for launching the Kartarpur corridor. “If are more such ‘jhappis’, then our India-Pakistan problems will be solved,” he asserted.
Incidentally, Sidhu did not repeat the embrace with the Pakistan army chief. He and the general just shared a quick handshake and a smile.
Khan added in a lighter vein that if Sidhu were to stand for any election in Pakistan, especially in Punjab, he would surely win.
In her speech, Harsimrat Badal said with a catch in her voice that she did not have any “friends or relatives” in Pakistan and that she never thought she would be able to do darshan at Gurudwara Darbar Sahib.
She also claimed that “her party” had been working hard in the “last seven months” to bring the proposal to fruition.
Badal was also the only one to even refer to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, by name, as being a key actor in the Kartarpur corridor project. Sidhu had thanked the “Indian government”, while Khan had not mentioned Modi at all in his remarks.
Around 4,000 Sikh pilgrims from India and abroad were given visas to attend the special event. They sat in rows and rows of chairs in the large white pavilion erected in the fields next to the white-washed Gurudwara Durbar Sahib.
Sixty-five-old Paramjit Singh had travelled with his friends and family from Punjab’s Nawanshahr district. After partaking of the langar of rajma and mithi chawal, he stood with two of his friends in the grounds of the gurdwara, as other pilgrims lounged on dhurries on the ground.
Asked whom they want to give credit for the corridor, he immediately said, “Imran Khan”. After a pause, he added, “Sidhu also.”
Most of the pilgrims had travelled from Lahore in the morning after doing the rounds of all the major gurudwaras in Pakistan in the last week.
Unlike at other towns around gurudwara Panja Sahib and Nankana Sahib, there were no banners and flags of Khalistan at Gurudwara Durbar Sahib as thousands of pilgrims and foreign visitors descended on the small dusty hamlet.
However, known Khalistani elements were among the audience. Pakistan Shiromani Gurudwara Prabandhak Committee general secretary, Gopal Singh Chawla, who had not allowed Indian consular officials at Gurudwara Dera Sacha Sauda and Nankana Sahib, was in the line-up to shake hands with the Pakistani army chief.
Long-standing demand achieved
Union ministers Harsimrat Kaur Badal and Hardeep Singh Puri arrived in Pakistan on Wednesday morning to represent India during the ceremony on the other side of the border. They were nominated after Sushma Swaraj declined the invitation due to “prior commitment”.
“I feel extremely grateful and privileged to be able to make this pilgrimage. This was a long-standing demand of the Sikh community. Express gratitude also to the Pakistan government,” Puri told reporters before walking across the border to Pakistan.
Darbar Sahib in Pakistan – the first gurudwara – was established by Guru Nanak Dev in 1522 and is said to be the final resting place of the Sikh faith’s founder. It is located across the river Ravi, about four kilometres from the Dera Baba Nanak shrine on the Indian side of the border.
The Kartarpur corridor will facilitate visa-free travel for Sikh pilgrims to Gurudwara Darbar Sahib in Kartarpur and is expected to be completed within six months. The proposal is for round-the-clock, 365 days cross-border passage for pilgrims, with “free and readily available consular service for Indian citizens on the Pakistani side”.
When it received the green signal, the Kartarpur Sahib corridor project was mired in a scramble for credit between New Delhi and Islamabad – and also among domestic political players in Punjab, with elections in mind
Competing claims for credit
To mark the 550th birth anniversary of Guru Nanak Dev in 2019, the Union cabinet announced a slew of measures, with the development of a visa-free Kartarpur Sahib pilgrimage corridor across the border topping the list.
Pakistan promptly reacted by welcoming India’s announcement as an endorsement of what it claims was originally its proposition – and were already ahead of New Delhi in implementation.
Pakistan foreign office spokesperson Muhammad Faisal, before leaving for Kartarpur today morning, told mediapersons this was a “historic step for the welfare of minorities”. This decision, he said, “was widely appreciated by the people including in India.”
Rejecting Pakistan’s claims, Indian officials took umbrage to the implication that the cabinet decision was taken to pre-empt the official Pakistani announcement of a foundation stone laying ceremony by Imran Khan.
The Union cabinet claimed the resolution was preceded by weeks of internal consultations and also rejected claims that the Kartarpur project was Pakistan’s initiative.
A long time coming
Atal Bihari Vajpayee, in 1999, had been the “first” to propose a visa-free corridor for pilgrims to travel from Dera Baba Nanak in India to Darbar Sahib in Pakistan during his visit to Lahore. The Pakistani government did not respond to this proposal, according to the MEA.
The UPA government had also raised it in the last ten years at several levels.
Five years later in 2004, Manmohan Singh announced the provision of a corridor between the two holy shrines on the occasion of the 400th anniversary of Prakash Utsav – the day marking the installation of the Guru Granth Sahib at the Golden Temple.
In September the same year, Indian foreign secretary Shyam Saran requested his Pakistani counterpart to include Kartarpur Sahib on the list of shrines permitted access according to the 1974 bilateral protocol on visits to religious shrines. This was also not agreed to by Pakistan, according to the MEA.
Even when the 1974 protocol was finally amended in 2005, Kartarpur Sahib was not included.
In 2008, the then external affairs minister S.M. Krishna raised the issue again during a formal visit to Pakistan, which, yet again, met with no response.
Fast-forward to 2018, in the run-up to elections, the Kartarpur Sahib corridor proposal has emerged at the forefront in Punjab politics, with the Congress-led state government and the NDA-backed Akali Dal using the issue as a political plank.
Controversy was stirred up after Congress lawmaker Navjot Singh Sidhi, who attended Imran Khan’s inauguration as prime minister in Islamabad earlier this August, returned to India to say that General Bajwa had told him to open the route between the two Sikh shrines on the occasion of Guru Nanak Dev’s 550th birth anniversary. Sidhu was rebuked by external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj for interfering in “sensitive issues.”
Subsequently, in a briefing held by the MEA, it was specifically mentioned that Harsimrat Kaur Badal, daughter-in-law of Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) chief Parkash Singh Badal, had written to Sushma Swaraj asking her to take up the matter of the Kartarpur Sahib corridor – without referencing Sidhu’s conversation with Bajwa.
When India agreed to meet the Pakistani foreign minister in New York, the only item on the agenda was the Kartarpur Sahib corridor. However, a day later, the meeting was cancelled.
This month, Punjab chief minister Amarinder Singh reminded Swaraj that a resolution on the corridor had been passed by Punjab assembly in August and urged Swaraj to take up the matter with Pakistan.
Once the decision was announced by the Union cabinet on November 22, Singh, Badal and Sidhu welcomed it, while they all jostled to take credit by association.
Pakistan, on the other hand, claims that the seeds of the Kartarpur corridor proposal were laid by Pakistan.
Foreign minister S.M. Qureshi claimed that Pakistan had already conveyed its decision to open the corridor to India before the Union cabinet’s announcement, with Imran Khan scheduled to “break ground” on the construction on November 28.
The opposition Pakistani People’s Party claimed that the first proposal was made by Benazir Bhutto.
In order for the Kartarpur Sahib corridor to be operational, the 1974 protocol will need to be amended. Indian officials have placed a condition in its proposal for the provision of a “full-fledged” corridor which is open “365 days, 24 hours”, with no restriction on the number of pilgrims passing through.
This could prove more difficult than it seems as Indian high commission officials have often complained about not being allowed access to Indian pilgrims visiting Pakistani gurudwaras.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi likened the decision by the two countries to the fall of the Berlin Wall, indicating that the project may ease simmering tension between the two countries.
However, India’s tepid official response indicates that the corridor project is not seen as a major harbinger of change in its policy towards Pakistan.
Official sources felt that the support provided by the Pakistani “deep state” was a tactical move initiated to increase influence among the Sikh pilgrims. “10,000 Indian Sikhs travel to Pakistan every year. Also global SIkhs are coming and spending time, they can be influenced,” said a senior government official.
Indian officials felt that Islamabad may have calculated that this was another way to open a channel with New Delhi. “We are not having a dialogue. This is one way to have it,” they said.
Despite the Pakistani corridor plans mentioned at the event today, New Delhi and Islamabad have yet to sit down and formally discuss the project.
According to Indian officials, even the nature of the project – whether it would be visa-free – is up in the air. There are two models that New Delhi is considering – the first one being the Wagah model, which is passport and visa for pilgrims. The second one is the Line of Control model, where Kashmiris can travel across a corridor with a permit.