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Kartarpur Corridor: A Path Towards Peace Amid Tensions

August 17, 2023

The Kartarpur Corridor’s launch was extraordinary amid Pakistan and India’s escalating standoff. The historical event may not break the ice, but it shows the road forward. The tunnel enabling Indian Sikh pilgrims visa-free access to one of their holiest places has destroyed Partition’s legacy.

The four-kilometre route was emotional for hundreds of Sikh believers on opening day. The 72-year drive from the border took five minutes. The white dome of Kartarpur temple may be viewed from across the border. Opening on the eve of Guru Nanak’s 550th birth anniversary made the event more significant.

On November 12, millions of Sikhs worldwide celebrated Guru Nanak’s 550th birthday, one of the world’s largest birthday celebrations. Kartarpur is also hosting UK and Canadian devotees for the celebrations.

The Indian and Pakistani prime leaders launched the corridor on either side of the border despite a diplomatic standoff. Despite escalating Indian belligerence, Pakistan made it possible.

Even under extreme pressure, certain processes can melt ice.

Pakistan announced a year ago its willingness to open the corridor long discussed between New Delhi and Islamabad. The corridor was discussed in 1998, 2004, and 2008, but no agreement was reached. There were always political, security, or other obstacles.

Pakistani civilian and military authorities seemed more devoted this time. Despite a complete rupture of relations between the two countries, project talks continued. Modi’s new intervention in India-held Kashmir may have ruined everything.

Pakistani voices opposed the opening of the corridor, which required direct discussions with India, during the Modi government’s intimidation of eight million Kashmiris in the occupied region. It was a daring move by the Imran Khan government to dismiss the concerns.

Politics and religion should never be mixed. Fulfilling a religious community’s long-standing request to visit their holy places shows statesmanship. Such choices boost confidence and win hearts and minds. Partition divided the subcontinent’s population and holy locations.

Under a 1974 bilateral convention, the two countries agreed to promote cross-border shrine visits. The agreement covers 15 Pakistani and 5 Indian locales, however Kartarpur, one of the holiest Sikh sites across the border, was not included. Visa restrictions have made visiting the listed shrines in India harder for Pakistanis in recent years. Pakistan’s opening of the Kartarpur Corridor has garnered worldwide and Indian praise.

Opening the Kartarpur Corridor at a time when all bilateral relations between New Delhi and Islamabad have been shattered and almost all people-to-people communication has been cut is a welcome move. It shows that even in tremendous tension, certain steps can melt the ice or at least build public goodwill.

Over the past 70 years, the two neighbors have seen many ups and downs — wars followed by relative peace — but the current situation is probably the worst, with rising Indian bellicosity and virulent nationalism stifling rational dialogue on issues that continue to undermine regional peace.

The Kartarpur Corridor’s opening could have been a breakthrough in any other situation. But the Kashmir blockade and Indian suppression of Kashmiri self-determination struggle cast a lingering shadow over the occasion. Despite mounting international indignation and opposition inside India, there is little sign of India reversing direction or showing flexibility.

The Indian annexation of conquered territory and attempt to obliterate Kashmiri identity are elements of strong nationalism under a Hindu majority. It is both territorial occupation and an effort to marginalize a religious group. Modi, inspired by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, wants to make India a Hindu rashtra and marginalize other religions.

The brutal military force suppresses the Kashmiri fight for self-determination and subjugates an entire people culturally. India is experiencing a rise in aggressive Hindu nationalism that is producing instability.

Militant nationalism impacts state institutions, including the court. Thus, the current Indian Supreme Court ruling on the Babri mosque controversy was expected. Unfortunately, the judgement came on the day of the landmark Kartarpur event, which demonstrated religious tolerance. Apart from impacting the region, the Indian apex court verdict could deepen the religious divide.

Events in India and the rise of militant nationalism there could encourage right-wing Islamist groups in Pakistan that support a majoritarian Islamic state and are still active despite the state’s claims to have reined them in. JUI-F leader Maulana Fazlur Rehman and others opposed the Kartarpur Corridor’s opening. Despite skepticism, the majority of Pakistanis support the move.

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