It was heartening to hear Prime Minister Narendra Modi praise his Pakistani counterpart Imran Khan for facilitating the opening of the cross-border corridor enabling Sikh pilgrims from India to travel to the Gurudwara Darbar Sahib at Kartarpur in Pakistan.
All credit to the Pakistani prime minister for taking the initiative to open the corridor and standing by his decision despite the belligerent Indian posturing, particularly during India’s general elections and after the Modi government’s decision regarding Jammu and Kashmir.
Indian politician and former cricketer Navjot Singh Sidhu’s relationship with Imran Khan also played a role in the Kartarpur Corridor initiative.
When Sidhu visited Pakistan for Imran Khan’s swearing in ceremony, the Pakistani Chief of Army Staff Qamar Javed Bajwa, assured him that Pakistan would open the Kartarpur corridor before Guru Nanak’s 550th birth anniversary.
An overjoyed Sidhu embraced Bajwa, in a gesture that was slammed heavily in India. His former party, Bharatiya Janata Party, criticised him and even his current party Congress abandoned him.
However, Sidhu, like Khan, has stood firm on this issue.
The world is watching as Pakistan makes moves towards peace and India fails to reciprocate. Given the usually tit-for-tat relationship between India and Pakistan, Narendra Modi should have used the occasion of the Kartarpur corridor opening to announce a similar arrangement for Pakistani citizens wanting to visit Ajmer Sharif dargah through a passage across the border in Rajasthan.
The world also watched as the Supreme Court pronounced its judgment on the Ayodhya case, taking away the right of India’s minority Muslims to rebuild a mosque where it had stood before 1992.
The judgment ironically was pronounced on the day of the Kartarpur Corridor opening, as Pakistan offered another religious minority, Sikhs, an opportunity to visit their holy places without the requirement of a visa and with a warm welcome.
The response of Sikh pilgrims who have had a chance to go across the corridor to Kartarpur indicates that Pakistan has left no stone unturned to make this a pleasant experience for them. By this one gesture, Imran Khan has won the goodwill of Indians. It would be even better if he removed the passport requirement as an identity document because a vast number of poor Indian citizens do not possess this document. Why not allow the Aadhaar card instead?
We remember the 2005 Delhi to Multan peace march, that we undertook by foot in India and by vehicle in Pakistan. Along our journey, many common Indians, especially from rural areas, wanted to join us in travelling across the border. They were disappointed on learning that they would require a passport and visa.
The service fee of $20 is quite high. Making it free would allow Indian Sikhs from lower income groups to fulfil their dream of visiting the resting place of Guru Nanak. There are other ways of generating income from this project itself to maintain the corridor and the shrine.
Our 2005 Delhi-Multan peace march had three demands. First, India and Pakistan must resolve all their disputes through dialogue, including the issue of Jammu and Kashmir which must be resolved according to wishes of the people belonging there.
Second, India and Pakistan must give up their nuclear weapons immediately and reduce their defence budgets to free up resources for developmental activities on both sides in the interest of common people.
Three, the two countries should remove the requirement of passport and visa and allow free travel across the border.
It was the third demand which attracted most support and applause in the rural areas, and concern among the urban educated. As we approached Jalandhar, a Tadi Kirtan singer at a gurudwara came to us and suggested that the third demand be made demand number one.
Once free travel across the border is allowed, he said, it would be much easier to resolve the first two issues. We were astonished at the soundness of his logic, and humbled to be educated by a common man on the street. He has left an indelible impression on us, more than any of the university professors who’ve taught us inside the four walls of a classroom.
In Multan, we visited the dargah of the Sufi saint Bahauddin Zakariya, where the march terminated. We were received by Shah Mehmood Qureshi, the present foreign minister of Pakistan, who is also the Sajjada Nashin of the dargah.
When a man tried to start a dua, a prayer, in the name of Pakistan and Islam, Qureshi, not yet a politician then, stopped him. Instead, Qureshi did a prayer in the name of peace and friendship between Pakistan and India.
He then hosted us at his house, where a large number of locals had also gathered. There, Qureshi said something to welcome us which is easier said in India than in Pakistan. One day, he said, the border would be irrelevant, and Pakistan and India will become one, “like the two Germanies”. Such was the congeniality created by the peace march.
The day Narendra Modi flagged off the 562 pilgrims from Indian side with Imran Khan receiving them on the other side, all acrimony between the leaders of two countries disappeared like magic.
Our visits to Pakistan tell us that the official enmity is artificially maintained. It easily gives way to bonhomie whenever the atmosphere is more conducive.
The acrimony between the two governments doesn’t percolate down to the level of common people on either side, who speak the same language. If the two governments showed more benevolence and allowed citizens to meet freely the animosity between the establishments would also melt away.
India is mistrustful of the Pakistani government’s initiative, suspecting the Army or Inter Services Intelligence of ulterior motives like encouraging Khalistani protagonists to create disturbances in India. The Indian security establishment may worry about that, but it should not come in the way of promoting peace and friendship on the foundations which have been laid in Kartarpur.
No relationship based on mistrust can flourish. The stakes for peace, which will make so many people’s lives easier, are so high that it is worth taking the risk. Punjab chief minister Amarinder Singh has said that he will talk to Modi to persuade Pakistan to open access to more historical gurudwaras there.
Clearly, despite tense relations between the two governments, easier travel across the border remains a popular demand, particularly in contiguous areas on either side.
Sandeep Pandey is a Ramon Magsaysay awardee from Lucknow, and is visiting professor of the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad. He tweets @sandeep4justice and can be reached at email@example.com.
This piece is published in conjunction with Aman Ki Asha.