Desirable outcomes call for determined actions. (Illustration by CR Sasikumar)
KARTARPUR SAHIB: Even when the dark night seems endless, hope for a hint of light never dies. That’s how it is with India-Pakistan relations. Just when everything looked bleak, the Kartarpur Sahib Corridor opened. Showing welcome grace, Prime Minister Narendra Modi thanked his Pakistani counterpart Imran Khan for making it happen.
In a more significant comment, he likened the inauguration of the corridor to the “Fall of the Berlin Wall”, since that day, November 9, marked the 30th anniversary of the event that accelerated the end of the Cold War. “Two different streams had come together and taken the pledge to make a new beginning. Today, the Kartarpur Corridor has started with the coordinated efforts of India and Pakistan.”
If Modi genuinely wants the “Berlin Wall” of hostility between India and Pakistan to fall, he must now walk the talk. But, how? The answer lies in the words he himself spoke — “coordinated efforts” of the two countries to “make a new beginning”.
Desirable outcomes call for determined actions. Boldness alone breaks deadlocks. Mao and Nixon demolished the “Bamboo Wall” and normalised relations between China and the USA. Gorbachev showed immense audacity and foresight to bring the Cold War to a bloodless end by initiating “coordinated efforts” with Ronald Reagan and mature European leaders of the time. The leaders of India and Pakistan must now show the same courage, commitment and innovativeness.
A significant testimony of that innovativeness is the Kartarpur Sahib Corridor itself. Earlier this month, I went on a pilgrimage to the gurdwara that marks the place of his departure from his mortal existence in 1539. I travelled not through the corridor, but from Lahore. The sight of the unending caravan of cars and buses bringing yatris to the gurdwara was unbelievable. Almost all of them were Pakistanis, unlike those who come through the corridor, who are mostly Indians. Ramesh Singh Arora, a former member of the Pakistan national assembly, told me, “There were nearly 20,000 yatris today, of which only around 1,800 came from India through the corridor. Muslims far outnumbered Pakistani Sikhs, because they are proud that Nanak Baba, who was born and passed away here, is part of Pakistan’s heritage.”
“This looks like a silent social-spiritual revolution,” I said to Arora, who is a member of the gurdwara’s management committee. His response, “This is just the beginning. The Indian media is painting a wrong image of Pakistan, as a place where Muslims hate non-Muslims. People in India should know that not a single political party in Pakistan opposed when our government built the world’s largest and finest gurdwara complex here. There was no opposition in our media either.”
The word “yatri” has a profound meaning in the context of the opening of Kartarpur Sahib. The idea of opening a road to bring mainly Sikh pilgrims from India to Kartarpur, located just 3 km from the India-Pakistan border, was first mooted in the talks between prime ministers Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Nawaz Sharif in 1999, when the former had come to Lahore on his landmark “bus yatra”. I was privileged to have travelled with him on that “peace bus”. Even though it took two decades for the idea to fructify, the irrefutable fact is that the “Berlin Wall” between India and Pakistan has been pierced.
In Germany, the Berlin Wall fell because tens of thousands of ordinary citizens, desiring the reunification of the two Germanys, dealt hammer-blows on it. Something similar, though not identical, has happened between India and Pakistan. The Kartarpur Sahib Corridor has opened mainly because of the intense desire of the people, mostly Sikhs. Their prayers acted as silent “hammer-blows”, which the leaders could not ignore. Unlike in Germany, they do not want re-unification of our two countries, but reconciliation between two parts of a common civilisational community.
Once this fundamental truth is realised, Modi and leaders of Pakistan’s military-civilian establishment can think of opening many more corridors of peace and reconciliation, including some linking the two sides of Kashmir, without either side feeling insecure or threatened. But this requires bold and out-of-the-box thinking in both New Delhi and Islamabad. Here is a suggestion. Modi should invite Imran Khan and Pakistan’s Chief of Army Staff, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, for talks to New Delhi. Alternatively, he should go to Islamabad and meet them.
Why should Modi meet both Imran Khan and General Bajwa? For three reasons. One, both are responsible for opening the Kartarpur Sahib Corridor and have demonstrated their commitment to a breakthrough in India-Pakistan ties. Two, there is an entrenched view in India that Pakistan’s military does not want good relations with our country. This is only partly true. If India treats its smaller neighbour on the basis of sovereign equality leading to an “honourable peace” — rather than “triumph” for India and “loss” for Pakistan — the military establishment in Rawalpindi can deliver better results than the wobbly civilian leadership in Islamabad.
Three, in General Bajwa, we have a Pakistani military chief who genuinely wants peace with India. I am saying this on the basis of my discussions with numerous Pakistanis who are well-informed about the power equations in their country. The messy controversy over his extension in office will soon end. We can count on him to back a valiant peace process with India.
There is a precedent for Pakistan’s PM and army chief (along with the ISI chief Lt General Faiz Hameed) visiting a foreign capital together and holding talks with the leadership of that country. In October, they went to Beijing, just two days before Chinese President Xi Jinping came to India for the second informal summit with Modi at Mahabalipuram. General Bajwa had also met Xi Jinping in Beijing in September 2018.
Critics and cynics will ask: “China has a special clout with Pakistan, which India lacks. Will Pakistan’s army chief talk to an Indian PM? Never.” The belief that China matters more to Pakistan than India is flawed. Although China is important for Islamabad, all farsighted Pakistanis, including those in the military and civilian establishments, know that their country’s long-term security, stability and progress is impossible without normalisation of relations with India. Furthermore, the untapped social, cultural, spiritual and historical ties between India and Pakistan are far deeper and stronger than anything that exists between Pakistan and China. For proof, come to Kartarpur Sahib Gurdwara.
Does Modi have it in him to break the Indo-Pak “Berlin Wall”, in coordination with General Bajwa and Imran Khan? Or will they allow inevitable provocations to interrupt the peace process, as has so often, and so sadly, happened in the past?
This article first appeared in the print edition on December 7, 2019 under the title "Fall of Indo-Pak Berlin Wall". The writer is founder of the Forum for a New South Asia - Powered by India-Pakistan-China Cooperation.