The opening of the Kartarpur corridor for Sikh pilgrims in India and around the world by Pakistan tantamounts to possibilities – both negative and positive – depending on where the two neighbours want to take it. The chief minister of the Indian state of Punjab, Captain Amarinder Singh added to the voice of some in the Indian media who see Pakistan’s move mainly as a ploy to rekindle the Khalistan issue.
Concern was voiced about a promotional video released by PM Imran Khan’s government in Pakistan that showed Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, as if Indian politicians had not seen posters featuring the Khalistani militant in villages and around towns in eastern Punjab before. The insurgency of the 1980s in Punjab and a desire to engage in violence may be dead but the consciousness of the Sikh identity is not.
A double-edged sword
Does Pakistan want to rekindle the Khalistan issue or use the Kartarpur corridor as a geopolitical tool? The answer to both is yes, which is not odd because, historically, India and Pakistan have used each other’s aggrieved populations as leverage. Also, which country has ever done things for altruistic reasons?
Minimally, opening the corridor is a signal to India that this could lead to other possibilities, which may bring a climate of peace and stability in the region. It has partially renewed the idea of movement between the two Punjabs. The responsibility of where the two sides take the initiative lies on both instead of just one. Notwithstanding how India perceives Pakistan’s situation, the peace initiative does not come from a position of weakness. Islamabad after Balakot is what it was at the end of the India-Pakistan 1965 war: able to highlight the gap between India’s power posture and capabilities.
The Kartarpur corridor could lead to some traffic and trade that the Pakistan military could control. A controlled pattern is what the General Headquarters (GHQ) likes, which is starkly different from how former Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif wanted it – fairly independent of the military and driven by economic principles. The military considered Sharif’s trade initiative suspect also because it didn’t have a share for the institution and its fraternity. Kartarpur, the cost of which is not known, alleviates those concerns.
Sources argue that the Kartarpur initiative is welcomed in Pakistan’s Punjab province where the population had changed its mind in the last couple of decades about links with India. The Punjabis want greater contact, at least trade wise. In fact, the problem with the opening of the Kartarpur corridor is that the other three provinces in Pakistan have begun to notice and feel dejected. Their question is: why does Punjab have more right to develop contacts across the border than Khyber Pakhtunkhwa or Sindh?
Referring to the Pakistan Army’s strategy, a maximalist standpoint, on the other hand, is to stoke the desire among Sikhs in India’s Punjab and the Sikh diaspora to setup an independent state of Khalistan. The Sikh population is divided between India and the rest of the world, especially in Canada, the US and the UK.
In recent years, Rawalpindi has redeveloped its interest in the Sikh population. Sources say that as a policy, Pakistan’s diplomatic missions around the world invite Sikhs to all official events. But a rekindling of Punjab insurgency at the scale of the 1980s is impossible unless New Delhi applies extraordinary repression. Too much blood has flown under the bridges of east Punjab for the Sikhs living there to reinitiate another round of conflict with India. It would take a major incident of repression by the Indian state to bring the fight back on the streets of Punjab. As far as the Sikh diaspora is concerned, despite the campaign “Referendum 2020”, calling for an independent state of Khalistan, there seems to be a lack of consensus on the idea.
But this inability does not preclude an effort to create a dent in India’s image domestically or internationally by reminding the world that the largest democracy in the world may have regular elections but suffers from lack of political liberalism. The rising Hindutva ideology juxtaposed with struggling religious minorities in India does create a sub-normal image. This is a battle of images that Rawalpindi is ready to fight.
Narendra Modi’s appeal in October 2016 at the BRICS summit for the world to punish Pakistan and isolate it seems to have got stuck in the minds of Pakistan’s security establishment. Since then, there has been a conscious struggle to repair Pakistan’s image abroad. From repairing relations with Donald Trump to welcoming the British royalty or seeking help from western vloggers, some of these efforts may help in turning around Pakistan’s very dark image as it used to be. The bottom line is the message that Pakistan is not isolated.
An image-building exercise
The Kartarpur corridor is part of the image building exercise – a message to the world and minorities in India that Jinnah’s Pakistan has more openness than a Hindutva-ruled India.
Today all minorities of India should have again realised that vision of our great leader Muhammad Ali Jinnah about Hindutva was absolutely right. They would now regret more convincingly to be part of India.#UglyIndia pic.twitter.com/V5UTAopxGK
— Asif Ghafoor (@peaceforchange) November 9, 2019
Given what religious minorities like Christians, Hindus and Ahmadis face in Pakistan, the claim made by the spokesperson of Pakistan Armed Forces, Major General Asif Ghafoor is not correct. However, the point made here is to demonstrate the underlying strategy according to which Sikhs are selected by Pakistan as a favored minority to bring out the tension they face across the border in India’s equally majoritarian political system. From a military-strategic perspective, the Kartarpur corridor will generate sympathy for Pakistan that will be of benefit in case of a potential future conflict between the neighbours.
The call for referendum by the pro-Khalistan diaspora groups may not lead anywhere but it is likely to bring to the fore the contestation within the Indian state. India’s treatment of its minorities and the Kashmir issue is already being questioned around the world. The US Congress has held two hearings on human rights issues in Kashmir.
Kartarpur corridor: a two-way street
This in no way means that the world is unwilling to do business with India. As long as New Delhi has ready cash, the world will sell anything – from fighter aircraft and nuclear submarines to haute couture. After all, the world sells to Saudi Arabia as well. But the flagging of the Kashmir issue or other domestic issues in India underlines the emerging reality that the world will also not just restrict its gaze to Bollywood and history.
Interestingly, while countries around the world have become more inward-looking and care less and less about upholding democratic principles, human rights have turned into sharper foreign policy and powerful political tools to be used selectively. The human rights of a set of population in one corner of the world can be deemed as more important than in another depending on foreign or domestic priorities of a country. The US may have an issue questioning the violation of Palestinian human rights, but it raises its voice for the Chinese Uyghurs or protesters in Hong Kong. This logic also means that unless a nation is anchored in the political and social ethos of a state and society, like Israel is for the West, the rest of the world will be questioned about its behavior.
The Kartarpur corridor will be difficult to shut, which is an important fact. The choice is really for India and Pakistan to either use it for exploring further opportunities or fight a long-drawn Cold War.
The author is Research Associate at SOAS, University of London and author of Military Inc: Inside Pakistan’s Military Economy. She tweets as @iamthedrifter. Views are personal.