Indian Catholic News

Can Sikh corridor build India-Pakistan relations?

Even though religion has been a diplomatic tool for centuries, peace talks remain a long way off.

 
By Nirendra Dev
New Delhi: 

Everything that occurs now has some reference to the past, prejudice and politics. Despite having a negative connotation of being the opium of the people, religion has been a diplomatic tool in South Asia since the beginning of political history in the region.

In the modern history of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh emerged largely because of considerations of religion. First, Muslims decided to part ways to form Pakistan by carving out areas where Muslims dominated. However, Islam as a unifying factor was found wanting when East Pakistan ceded and emerged as Bangladesh.

Hinduism and Islam continue to play vital roles in guiding the emotions of the masses and the policies of the governments of India and Pakistan, now nuclear-wielding archrivals. Their arms race and political chest thumping continue to create tension and remain a major reason for the abysmal poverty of millions of their people.

Religion again, this time Sikhism, gained prominence in relations between India and Pakistan when the countries agreed to build a visa-free corridor for Sikhs from India to visit their pilgrim center in Pakistan.

On Nov. 28, Pakistan's iconic cricketer-turned-politician and prime minister, Imran Khan, laid the foundation stone for a four-kilometer corridor connecting Indian Sikhs with their holy place Gurdwara Darbar Sahib in Pakistan's Kartarpur village, where Sikhism's founder Guru Nanak died in 1539.

The corridor connects Kartarpur with Dera Baba Nanak, a Sikh holy city in India's Gurdaspur district, helping Sikhs travel between these holy places without restrictions.

Indian Federal Minister Harsimrat Kaur Badal, who attended the Kartarpur function, brought a handful of clay from the place where Guru Nanak spent the latter years of his life.

Religious sentiments apart, a bigger question remains: Will this help peace between India and Pakistan?

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his pro-Hindu party Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) are viewed warily in Pakistan because of their hard-line Hindu nationalist position. It is generally believed that Pakistan's military was not keen on previous efforts by civilian leaders like Nawaz Sharif to improve ties with India.

However, at the Kartarpur function, Pakistan premier Khan sought to claim that even the army is on the same page as him regarding friendly ties with India. But that claim is easier to say than to prove. There is much skepticism in India too.

"In 1999, the then BJP prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee travelled to Lahore in Pakistan by bus to try to achieve greater peace, but Pakistan's army staged the Kargil conflict when over 1,000 soldiers from the two countries died. That actually revived the rivalry more strongly," said BJP leader Jadgdambika Pal.

BJP leaders are unsure if the corridor will allow Sikhs living in Pakistan to travel to their holy places in India.

Indian and Pakistan hardly ever grant visas to each other's citizens, accusing each other of supporting terrorism and subversive activities in their territories.

BJP sources in Delhi say India does not yet see the Kartarpur Corridor development as a "diplomatic turnaround episode" in India-Pakistan relations. They want Pakistan to stop supporting terrorists who act against India.

The BJP's line on Kartarpur is clear. "This is a sociopolitical and religious issue. We do not see it as any diplomatic breakthrough," a BJP leader said. "By deputing Sikh ministers for the ceremony, the government of India has kept it informal and religious, and thus Islamabad's efforts to steal any diplomatic limelight have been exposed."

For its part, Islamabad has consistently denied housing terrorists. But India insists the insurgency in Muslim-dominated Kashmir has support from Pakistan. India, under the present dispensation, wants Pakistan to stop supporting terrorists before any peace talks can start.

Since 1947, when India and Pakistan were born out of British India, Kashmir has been contentious. Pakistan claimed it because of its Muslim population, but its then Hindu king joined the Indian union. The countries have had three wars over Kashmir and now administer parts of it. Insurgents want to free the region from India to join Pakistan or make it a free Islamic state.

Khan's government wants to revive peace talks with India on its own terms on the vexed Kashmir issue. At Kartarpur Khan said Kashmir was the only issue between India and Pakistan. "The human race has reached the moon. Tell me what is the issue that human beings cannot solve. Can't India and Pakistan resolve one issue [Kashmir]?" Khan asked.

This predictably left the Indian side anguished and the Ministry of External Affairs in Delhi wasted no time in calling Khan's statement "unwarranted."

"It is deeply regrettable that the prime minister of Pakistan chose to politicize the pious occasion meant to realise the long-pending demand of the Sikh community to develop a Kartarpur corridor by making unwarranted reference to Jammu and Kashmir, which is an integral and inalienable part of India," ministry spokesman Raveesh Kumar said in reply to a question.

India's charge that Pakistan supports terrorism in India should not be seen as the BJP's pro-Hindu hyperbole. In fact, that has been the diplomatic stand for decades irrespective of governments and India has produced documented evidence to prove its version.

For example, Amarinder Singh, the Congress chief minister of Sikh-majority Punjab state and a former Indian army official, declined Pakistan's invitation to attend the Kartarpur function citing terrorism as a reason. "I will not go there for their ground-breaking ceremony unless Pakistan ends violence against India," he said.

The proof of the pudding is in the eating. In terms of India-Pakistan ties, a lot depends on the delivery level. Khan may be Pakistan's PM but the diplomatic engine room regarding India is in the hands of army generals.

In fact, India too has a hangover from domestic politics. It believes no Pakistani general should be considered a moderate. To cap it all, on June 3, 2015, Raheel Sharif, the former Pakistan army chief, said: "Kashmir is an unfinished agenda of partition. Kashmir and Pakistan are inseparable."

For Indian PM Modi, the going has become tough in view of general elections next year. He needs to take a tough stance against Pakistan. Perceived bravado against Pakistan has helped Modi in the past to garner Hindu nationalist votes.

At least until India's national elections are over, it would be unrealistic to think of any peace talks. And that is because religious sentiments remain politically important in this part of the world.

Nirendra Dev is a New Delhi-based journalist and author.

Source: UCAN

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