Thursday, 6 October, 2022
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Pakistan’s Kartarpur peace initiative doesn’t come from a position of weakness

Does Pakistan want to rekindle the Khalistan issue or use the Kartarpur corridor as a geopolitical tool? The answer to both is yes.

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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.

Also read: Imran Khan’s fantasy to revive Khalistan isn’t happening because Sikhs aren’t gullible

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.

Also read: Why Kartarpur corridor won’t go the same way as Vajpayee’s Delhi-Lahore bus diplomacy

Overcoming isolation

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.

Also read: Kartarpur corridor is religious diplomacy at work, a promising new trend around the world

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.

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.

Also read: Pakistan Army chief General Bajwa has two big challenges now. Kashmir is just one of them

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.

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  1. The Writer of this article is a frightened man and unnecessary importance given to the Khalistan issue. It is not the India of the medieval period but has enough power to counter external and internal threats.

    • She is a women who was intimidated to leave Pakistan. She has worked with paki army before as analyst. Don’t say anything. She makes sense all the time.
      My personal view about Kartarpur is that this is to bolster Khalistan narative, soft image among Sikhs , strategy to contain India from launching any invasion from east Punjab as happened in 1965, earn money and cleaning their past.

  2. India will play realpolitik. Kartarpur corridor will be only a corridor, nothing more, nothing less. As far as Khalistan is concerned, Sikhs are amused at Pakistan interest. One thing Modi has done to Pakistanis, taught them a few lessons on Secularism which a so called secular Jinnah couldn’t do.

  3. Why not gracefully accept a gesture that brings solace and joy to Sikhs all over the world. Achieved at a time when relations between the two countries were exceptionally fraught.

  4. Author’s key line:

    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.

    Kartarpur model can be applied as a solution to the impossible Kashmir dispute??

  5. Indeed, the entire Kartarpur episode has been choreographed from behind by the Big Boots. It perfectly ties in with Pakistan’s policy of needling India’s internal faultlines. However, this time around, given their domestic compulsions (IMF, FATF, Maulana, Nawaz Shariff, tomatoes etc), the offensive had to be sugar-coated enough not to seek world attention. And Khartarpur presented itself as a golden opportunity and the Big Boots grabbed it with both the hands. So, Pakistan would count their current score at Pak – 1, India – 0.

    However, it would be too tough an ask at the moment for an economically broke Pakistan, with FATF lurking in the background, to revive a rag-tag bunch of Khalistani separatists to be of any real bother for India.

  6. India is too strong now. Gone are the days of 1990s , the new security establishment does’nt care about bringing Pakistan to its knees and will punish it severely when needed. There is a common consensus among parties to open trade with Pakistan but India has to walk the tight rope here. Kartarpur has shown that if PAK military wants, its possible. The problem here is that does the establishment as a whole thinks like BAJWA or its BAJWA alone. This question has arose because of the recent protests from Maulana and Company. No political entity can take a step in Islamabad without PAK military’s blessings. I’ll say to this extent that Imran staying in the power will give immense relief to Indian policy makers. We exactly know who to deal with, and where the power center lies. BAJWA has 3 years after that what ? will this policy continue? Secondly, US will surely withdraw from Afghanistan by NOV 2020. What relevance will PAK have then? If the AFGH becomes stable and counters Taliban effectively the strategic location of Pakistan loses its relevance. PAK has to look at its options very closely in the year 2020 .

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