IF PEACE BETWEEN India and Pakistan could be attained by digging up soil, then what transpired in Narowal district of India’s western neighbour on November 28th was propitious. The plan to construct a 4-km corridor linking Kartarpur Sahib in Pakistan—the place where the founder of Sikhism, Guru Nanak, spent his last days—to the Indian border has been heralded as an ice-breaker between the two countries. Led by Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan, dozens of politicians from both sides of the Radcliffe Line, including the maverick minister from Punjab, Navjot Singh Sidhu, waxed eloquent on the necessity of peace. Going by Pakistani standards, there was gravitas to the event: its army chief Qamar Javed Bajwa, too, was present on the occasion. Also present on the inaugural stage were Khalistani activists, making the event one of those South Asian political melanges where emotions run ahead of reality.
That, however, was just one side to the show. In faraway Mumbai, these were days of remembrance and mourning for the deadliest terrorist attack launched from Pakistani soil that led to the killing of 175 Indians and foreigners. External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj did not attend the event, nor did Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh—Sidhu’s boss. Both were alive to the complexities of relations between the two countries. Singh said he could not attend as Pakistan was involved in a proxy war in Jammu & Kashmir and saw little reason to do so when Indian soldiers were dying in the Valley. Swaraj on her part was quick to point out that the ground clearing ceremony was in no way a prelude to renewed talks between Delhi and Islamabad.
The result is a curious spectacle that is hard to understand, unless seen together with the increasing influence of domestic politics on foreign policymaking and, ruefully, India’s cluelessness on dealing with Pakistan.
Seen in isolation, the Kartarpur Sahib corridor seems like a specific demand of the Sikh community that has been accepted by a generous Pakistan government and quietly given a go-ahead by India’s Government. To a large extent, this is true. But it is one among a series of such demands that concern local populations on the Indian side and a neighbouring country, and not India as a whole. Two other examples are the matter of local trade and transport links between J&K and Pakistan occupied Kashmir (PoK) and the matter of sharing Teesta river waters with Bangladesh. In both cases, local politics in J&K and West Bengal are mixed up with these matters. In an earlier era, they were handled by the MEA with a free hand, without any domestic entanglements. Increasingly, that is not the case, something that makes coherent policymaking a tough task for the foreign office.
Consider the current case. The plan was mooted by late Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee during the Lahore bonhomie days. After that, it went into cold storage with neither side displaying any interest except some occasional noises. This was the situation until some months earlier, when Sidhu—a politician in hurry—attended the swearing-in ceremony of Khan and urged the construction of the corridor. The Pakistani side was more than willing to take up the proposal. At the same time, the Government in Delhi was cautious. But here is where the story gets a twist. Sidhu is a Congress minister from Punjab, a state with a complicated history of religious politics turned into secessionist violence. The use of religion as a mobilising device is largely a practice of the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD). This blending of religion with politics has paid it handsome dividends. Traditionally, the Congress tries to eschew one-sided appeals to religion and community. But on the Kartarpur Sahib issue, Sidhu—who quit the BJP before he joined the Congress—senses an opportunity to run a longer race in Punjab politics.
The results are likely to prove damaging for both Punjab and India. In the roughly quarter century or so after the wiping out of terrorism from Punjab in 1992, politicians of all hues—even the SAD, whose mainstay is religious politics— avoided taking the politics of identity and religion towards extreme ends. Then, without any warning, a series of incidents involving the desecration of Guru Granth Sahib rocked the state in 2016. It is not clear who was involved in these incidents in spite of a probe by the CBI. Since then, there have been incidents that have heightened the danger of Khalistani terrorism returning to the province. Some signs are ominous: the lobbing of a grenade at a congregation of Nirankaris—a heterodox sect—in Amritsar recently has set off alarm bells from Chandigarh to New Delhi. The last time that attacks on the Nirankaris took place was in 1978, a year that marked the start of secessionism in Punjab.
Pakistan was deeply enmeshed in the terrorist violence of those years (1978-1992), providing material support and sanctuary to Khalistani terrorists. In recent years, Khalistanis have been active at Sikh shrines in Pakistan. Indian diplomats are routinely disallowed from visiting these places during periods of pilgrimage when hundreds of Indian Sikhs visit them. This is ostensibly to ensure the ‘security’ of India’s diplomats, but the real reasons include preventing them from making an assessment of what is going on. All this is happening at a time when Sikh extremists in Canada and Britain have mounted a vigorous campaign for a ‘referendum’ for ‘self-determination’ in the state.
At a juncture like this, allowing a corridor for visa-free travel by Sikh pilgrims to Kartarpur Sahib is a dangerous gambit, one the Government should have disallowed. That did not happen for obvious reasons: the SAD is a partner of the BJP in Punjab and as such cannot be seen as shying away from an issue that strikes an emotive chord among Sikhs of Punjab.
What this does, however, is lay bare the incoherence of India’s approach to Pakistan. This is no longer an issue that confounds party A or party B when it is in power in New Delhi. Every government thinks it can play a carrot-and-stick game to change Pakistan’s behaviour. In some cases, the approach is ideological and premised on ‘building bridges’ with that country’s elected leaders. In other situations, it is the alleged ‘pragmatism’ of managing ties that leads to contradictory steps. This time, it is the BJP-led Government that is taking missteps. The occasional conciliatory statement or the random meeting at the United Nations headquarters is useful for the optics of peace, but does no real harm to India within its territory. But opening the gates of a province that witnessed a secessionist insurgency is a different matter. This is all the more so when there exist real dangers of a revival of the political sentiments that caused the problem in the first place. When the Pakistan army talks of peace, one can be sure there’s trouble ahead.
The ideal course now would be to delay the Kartarpur project—something that shouldn’t be too hard. If that is not possible, then a thorough vetting of all those who wish to travel to Pakistan for religious purposes is now in order. But most importantly, it is time to put Punjab on watch again, if it is not to descend into trouble. India cannot afford another bout of terrorism there.