Kartarpur Corridor offers fresh chance to mend India-Pakistan relations, bring together troubled South Asia

Chinmay Dandekar

The 4.7-kilometre visa-free corridor inaugurated on the 9 November that will connect the Sikh shrines of Dera Baba Nanak Sahib (located in Punjab, India) and Gurdwara Darbar Sahib Kartarpur (in Punjab, Pakistan) on the occasion of 550th birth anniversary of Guru Nanak is a historic moment in the relationship between India and Pakistan.

While inaugurating the Kartarpur Corridor, Prime Minister Narendra Modi compared the event to the Fall of Berlin Wall when two contrasting ideologies united, while Pakistan prime minister Imran Khan on 28 November said "India and Pakistan need to forget the past and look ahead". The development is significant in the context of extraordinarily bad last year marked by hostile events such as the Pulwama attack, the Indian Air Force operation inside Pakistan, various ceasefire violations, the Kulbhushan Jadhav case and Pakistan trying to corner India internationally after India revoked Article 370.

South Asia, unlike other regions of the world, has been unable to take advantage of its linguistic, religious, cultural and geographical similarities to synergistically improve quality of life, accelerate economic growth, social progress and cultural development as outlined in the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) charter. This is mainly due to the strained relations between two regional giants India' and Pakistan, the cancellation for SAARC summit in 2016 after Uri attack is evidence of the same. The opening of Kartarpur Corridor may collectively give a ray of hope to South Asia.

Theory of realism

South Asia is a victim of the theory of realism in international relations which glorifies war, power maximisation, proliferation of military arsenal to maintain the balance of power, which has led to volatile situations. On the other hand the theory of functionalism talks about "piece by pieces", it means countries should divide issues into issues of 'high politics' and 'low politics'.

While issues such as terrorism and Kashmir are issues of high politics between New Delhi and Islamabad, others like Sir Creek, demilitarisation of Siachen glacier, increasing people-to-people relations through Track 2 initiatives such as religious tourism, tapping on the cultural homogeneity, exchanges of students and professionals across sectors, cricket and increasing trade across borders can be categorised as the issues of low politics.

Focusing on the less conflicting issues has the potential to reduce hostility, increase trust and in the long term have 'spill over effects' in other domains such as politics and issues of 'high politics'. The successful implementation of Indus Water Treaty between India and Pakistan amidst mayhem and chaos in bilateral relations has been an example of functionalism. Another example at a global-level has been Germany and France getting rid of antagonistic issues, focusing on 'low politics' and being successful to overcome a turbulent phase of history and eventually resulting in evolution of a strong European Union.

Religion was a major reason for the Partition, while the same reason has the potential to reduce fissures across borders through religious diplomacy. India and Pakistan signed The Protocol on visits to Religious Shrines in 1974, which includes Sikhs in India travelling to Pakistan, Pakistani Muslims travelling to holy Sufi shrines in India, also minority Hindus in Pakistan travelling to their shrines of faith in India.

A number of Buddhist stupas dotted along the Indus, the Indus Valley Civilisation sites along with some Christian sites and number of Sufi shrines have the potential to bring the idea of religious diplomacy to life. Having a huge linguistic, cultural and geographical similarity, Punjab can be a region of convergence between the two countries. The Kartarpur Corridor is thus, a step in right direction to tap that homogeneity.

In spite of various benefits that India and Pakistan might reap domestically and bilaterally with the opening of the Kartarpur Corridor, at no stage should India forget about the realities of power distribution in Pakistan with multiple power centres and dominance of army over its polity. The fact that Pakistan stepped up its efforts to build Kartarpur Corridor recently, in spite of it being long-standing demand, the invitation to leaders being active in the Khalistan movement and the video released during launch event featuring people involved in Khalistan movement should always keep India cautious while not losing the sight of optimism and potential benefits.

The way forward

Relations between India and Pakistan have been in flux since Independence. We have a long pattern of terror attacks disrupting peace talks. Politicians in India across time and party lines have tried to better relations with Pakistan and the same holds true with people such as Asif Ali Zardari and Nawaz Sharif in Pakistan. The challenge in both the countries is to manage perceptions being shaped by electoral politics, ego tussles, hate speech and vociferous media.

Media needs to be responsible enough to not to evoke passions and sell hate for TRPs. With a political crisis looming over Pakistan with anti-government protests, leaders like Zardari and Sharif being imprisoned, Pakistan trying for regime change in Afghanistan and suffering economically due to the Financial Action Task Force warning of additional measures and implementation of International Monetary Fund regimen, the last thing they would want is conflict with India.

For India, with a weakening economy, a stable government at helm of affairs, making peace with Pakistan makes more sense at this juncture. However, both New Delhi and Islamabad should not look for blanket solutions, they should be ready to swallow few bitter pills as the side effects of functionalism.

While focussing on issues of low politics can potentially deepen relations and reduce animosity, what is important is to not lose sight of a vision of peaceful and united South Asia in order to work together to battle common issues such as poverty, unemployment, economic backwardness and climate change.

A country can change its allies and its enemies, but not its neighbours. India and Pakistan have to deal with each other, irrespective of the changes in the international world order. Pakistani foreign minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi, in his latest interview with BBC, said , "The way the fall of Berlin Wall changed the face of Europe, Kartarpur Corridor can change the face of South Asia".

A departure from the past by politicians, taking the civil society into confidence and moving forward with synergy seems the only way forward. Perhaps Kartarpur could offer a fresh start.

The author is a political scientist and analyst. He is a scholar at the Indian School of Public Policy. He is also an associate strategic consultant with the Indian School of Public Policy-Policy Review and has written for publications like The Policy Times.

Also See: Kartarpur Corridor: Amarinder Singh, Imran Khan bond during bus ride over decades-old cricketing ties between families

Kartarpur corridor inauguration: Cricketer-turned-politician Navjot Singh Sidhu seeks permission from MEA to visit Pakistan

Kartarpur Corridor row: Amarinder Singh says Navjot Sidhu to clarify on posters in Amritsar hailing Imran Khan as hero of deal

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