A Peace Initiative or Strategic Googly
The event was quoted as a historic day by many on either side of the troubled border owing to bitter Indo-Pak relations when Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan organized a gala groundbreaking (Foundation Laying) ceremony on 28 November 2018 for opening of the Kartarpur Saheb Corridor for the Indian Sikh pilgrims. Two days back on 26 November, a similar ceremony was organized on the Indian side of the border without much fanfare in the presence of the Indian Vice-President Venkatiah Naidu. According to current indications, the corridor is likely to be operational by the next year marking the 550th birth anniversary of the first Sikh Guru Nanak Dev. The project will meet a long-awaited religious demand of the Sikhs world over.
The proposed corridor will connect Darbar Sahib in Pakistan's Kartarpur, the final resting place of Sikh faith's founder Guru Nanak Dev, with Dera Baba Nanak shrine in Gurdaspur district of Punjab province in India facilitating a visa-free movement of Sikh pilgrims. Notwithstanding the fanfare and emotive speeches, the event was not entirely without controversy; initially, due to participation of some unexpected elements and then due to irresponsible utterances of some high ranking politicians on the either side of the border during and after the event that has not only vitiated the whole process but also put question marks on the very intention of the Pakistani Patrons. Let's briefly see what all has been said and done that smacks of a cleverly designed military and political strategy of the neighbor rather than the holy spirit of respecting the religious sentiments and rights of a community.
The Kartarpur Shrine is located within the Pakistani side of the border by the River Ravi nearly four kilometres from the Indian state Punjab's Dera Sahib Railway Station. The present building of the Gurdwara was reportedly built in 1925 at the land and money donated by the Maharaja of Patiala, Sardar Bhupindar Singh. At the time of the partition, it fell under the territory of Pakistan and remained forgotten and uncared under the shock of partition for a long period. However, the Government of Pakistan later allowed its repair and it was restored to the current state in 2004. The area has a huge forest cover and River Ravi that throws formidable challenges for the additional care and maintenance. The nearest Pakistani city is Narowal alongside the Attari-Wagah border. The shrine gains significance as the final resting place of Guru Nanak and it has both a Samadhi and grave of the great Guru.
It is believed that the Gurudwara exists at the place where Guru Nanak died. This building was constructed to commemorate the venue where he settled towards the fag end of his life. Reportedly, he lived there along with many of his disciples of the Sikh community during the last eighteen years of his life until he died in 1529. He was the first Guru and founder of the Sikh religion and the shrine also houses few copies of the original Guru Granth Sahib. According to a legend, after Guru Nanak's death, both his Hindu and Muslim devotees had a claim over his funeral rites. While the Hindus wanted to cremate him, the Muslims wanted a burial. On the day, the dispute could not be resolved till late evening and finally both groups agreed to meet again the following morning. However, the following day, they found only a pile of flowers as his mortal remains which were divided between both the groups. While the Hindus cremated those flowers, the Muslims buried them; hence both a Samadhi and grave at the place.
As per available reports, the first serious initiative was taken by the then Prime Minister of India Atal Bihari Vajpayee with the Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Shariff during his bus ride to Lahore in 1999. However, soon after the meeting the Kargil War broke out, following which Shariff was overthrown by General Parvez Musharraf. President Pervez Musharraf apparently favoured the idea of allowing Sikh pilgrims from India to visit the shrine visa-free in 2000 but the issue remained pending ever since on account of the continued tense relations and absence of any regular dialogue between the two countries. Out of sheer deference to the respected Guru, Indian Sikhs are known to gather in large numbers on the Indian side of the border for the sacred viewing of the site and even an idea of the Indian government installing few powerful binoculars at the Dera Baba Nanak in Gurdaspur, Punjab has been debated from time to time.
Recent Developments and Groundbreaking Ceremony
Pakistan had undergone national assembly elections in August 2018, and Imran Khan's Tehreek-e-Insaf Party backed by Army, as predicted well before elections, emerged as the largest party but short of the absolute majority. However, he mustered enough support from other smaller groups to form the government. In his oath-taking ceremony, he invited cricketer turned comedian-cum-politician Navjot Singh Sidhu, Tourism and Culture Minister of the Government of Punjab, along with his other cricketing friends like Sunil Gawasker and Kapil Dev. While the other two politely excused themselves but Sidhu chose to visit Pakistan in personal capacity to attend the ceremony. Though he received flak at home for freely intermingling and embracing the Pakistan Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa and Gopal Chawla, he divulged that General Bajwa had assured him of opening the Kartarpur Sahib corridor before the 550th birth anniversary of Guru Nanak.
The Government of Pakistan in September 2018 expressed their readiness to open the Kartarpur corridor for visa-free entry of the Indian Sikhs provided the Indian side too agree and make a formal request. The Government of India promptly agreed and approved the development of corridor on their side from Dera Baba Nanak in Gurdaspur district to the International India-Pakistan border, with the passage being termed as the "Corridor of Peace". On their side, Pakistan have planned to construct a bridge and road from the international border to the shrine. In a way it was a good move because on the last two occasions for a similar consideration, one around 1969-70 and the other in 1999, a similar consideration faded in oblivion after outbreak of hostilities as Indo-Pak 1971 War and Kargil Conflict in 1999.
The groundbreaking ceremony at the Pakistan side on 28 November was done with a lot of fanfare and largely in a peaceful manner. While the Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan talked of peace with emotive appeal, 'If you take one step forward, we will take two.' The event was acknowledged by the Indian Prime Minister Modi who said that with the blessings of Guru Nanak, even the Kartarpur corridor could be a medium to join people from across the border. The event, however, was not without controversies too. Firstly, it was a socio-religious function but the Pakistani leaders chose to deliver politically charged speeches; Imran Khan even raised the contentious Kashmir issue citing it as the only dispute between Pakistan and India. Then on the Indian side, the limelight was hogged by Navjot Singh Sidhu who allegedly visited in his private capacity at the invitation of the Pakistan government but against the wishes of his Chief Minister although India had officially deputed two Sikh Cabinet Ministers to attend the ceremony.
In his speech, Sidhu heaped praises over Imran Khan calling him "Massiah of Peace". He said that the generations would remember Khan's name whenever they speak about Kartarpur besides adding that it was Pakistan which had always taken peace initiatives with India in the past. Here, Sidhu certainly needs to learn history of the Indo-Pak relations in correct perspective. It's necessary to record here the truth about the two most recent initiatives made involving the top political leadership of the two countries to normalize relations. On the first occasion, this was the then Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Bajpai who went to Lahore on a bus to meet his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Shariff on a peace mission in February 1999. The peace process was immediately sabotaged by Pakistan Army with treacherous infiltrations in Kashmir that led to the Kargil War. On the second occasion, the incumbent Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, on his way back from Kabul, made an in promptu visit to Nawaz Shariff's residence at Raiwind in December 2015. It was a goodwill visit to break ice and start a comprehensive dialogue between the two countries. The peace process was again scuttled within days with a terrorist attack on the Pathankot Air Force Station in early January 2016 with the handlers traced to Pakistan.
The other controversies relate to the presence of the Pakistan Army Chief General Bajwa and a well-known Khalistani terrorist Gopal Singh Chawla who was noticed shaking hands with the General. Joint photos of Sidhu and Chawla, posted by the latter on the Facebook, were also taken note by many in India; in reply to inquisitive journalists, Sidhu, however, said that he was snapped five to ten thousand times in Pakistan and he would not know who this Chawla is. In another interaction with the media in Pakistan, Sidhu also chose to criticize the Indian government making a reference to the alleged corruption in the Rafale fighter deal while showering praises on the Pakistani establishment. The presence of Gopal Chawla was objected to because he also has close links with the internationally proclaimed Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD) terrorist Hafiz Saeed, an alleged mastermind of the Mumbai terror attacks.
Although it is not the first time that any Indian politician of the Congress Party has gone to Pakistan and indulged in controversies by praising Pakistani leadership while criticising own country and political opponents. Only some time back, Mani Shankar Aiyar, a senior Congress leader and ex-minister, during a visit to Pakistan had unambiguously spoken to his patrons against the present Indian government and Prime Minister Narendra Modi while simultaneously glorifying ex-President, General Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan and people. In response to a query about improving relationship of the two countries, Aiyar then responded to his patrons, “…Hamein le aiye, inko hataiye, aur koi tarika nahi hai.” (Bring us, remove him; there is no other way). It is very difficult to understand the psyche and motive of such leaders. But the obvious negative implications of the follies of such politicians are then so often felt back home.
Recently, some people raised pro-Pakistan slogans in an election meeting of Sidhu in Rajasthan and he simply kept smiling rather then making any efforts to identify or stop such people. There is no harm per se in appreciating or raising slogans in favour of any other nationality or people but if it happens to be a country with constant enemy-like acts with a gory and inglorious past then the intent and motives of people raising such slogans indeed become questionable. In another election meeting, Sidhu said that his captain is the Congress President Rahul Gandhi and he had gone to Pakistan with his blessings. On the other hand, Punjab Chief Minister Capt Amrinder Singh, while welcoming the occasion as the cherished desire of Sikhs, had declined Pakistan's invite of attending Kartarpur Corridor foundation stone laying ceremony citing continued terror attacks in Punjab and unprovoked killing of Indian soldiers by the Pakistan forces. In an interview to a media channel, he has dubbed the whole affair as a bigger conspiracy hatched by the Pakistan Army and ISI.
Post-event Overtures of Pakistan
The din of the gala event at the Foundation Stone Ceremony at Kartarpur had not settled down yet but Pakistan leaders already started revealing their true intention and strategy behind the move. Many in the Pakistani establishment and media have cited it as a diplomatic masterstroke by their leadership. For about 25 million Sikhs in India and around the world, the Nankana Sahib and Kartarpur Sahib, both in Pakistan's Punjab province, are indeed among their holiest shrines, and visiting these sites is considered a religious obligation. But the way the Kartarpur Corridor issue has been handled by Pakistan post groundbreaking ceremony, it gives a clear hint that they neither care for the religious sentiments of Sikhs in true sense nor are they serious about solving the bilateral issues. Instead, they are simply looking for some transient gains and opportunity of embarrassing India.
To illustrate the above point, it may be relevant to cite a few overtures and utterances of the top leadership of Pakistan following the event. The very next day came an unprovoked statement came from the Foreign Minister of Pakistan Shah Mahmood Qureshi. The video of his statement is viral on media where he could be seen concluding with his iniquitous smile that India was trapped in Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan's "Googly" and was forced to send two of its ministers on the occasion. Yet another minister in Imran Khan's cabinet was also noticed speaking in the same language. India has taken a clear stand that it will not have any diplomatic interaction on peace until Pakistan renounces its support to terrorist operations against India in Kashmir and elsewhere. What India did on the occasion by sending two Sikh ministers at the ceremony was in the larger interests and aspirations of the millions of Sikhs world over; hence there was no need to mix the religion with politics. One may wonder if, apropos to a religious function, this Googly remark from Pakistan's Foreign Minister's was really necessary in the context of the Kartarpur Corridor, and by saying so what is that he actually wanted to convey to India in particular and the world community at large.
Then Pakistan President Arif-ur-Rehman Alvi shot another controversy by terming Kartarpur move as 'a great chaal (move or strategy)' when he made this remark in an interview to a Pakistani channel. Qureshi's controversial comments attracted sharp criticism from India when the External Affairs Minister bluntly said that his comments exposed him and that Pakistan has 'no respect for Sikh sentiments'. Later Prime Minister Imran Khan appeared to distance himself from Qureshi's statement and denied it being any sort of 'Googly'. Most strategic experts feel that even Imran Khan did not conduct himself commensurate with the occasion and what he spoke was like a clever politician than anything really befitting to a religious event. Yet another Pakistan Muslim League leader criticized the event as politically motivated at the behest of army. He stated that in the past both Nawaz Shariff and Benazir Bhutto were keen to open the corridor but both could not do what a jhappi (Sidhu's embracing General Bajwa) did recently.
It seems that not only the Pakistan Army but all political parties and leaders too thrive only on anti-India agenda and sentiments. It is also clear from the reactions of most of the opposition parties on the groundbreaking ceremony, including PML(N) led by Nawaz Shariff who is generally considered in favour of good relations with India. As it appears this initiative was a product of the strategic planning of the Army Chief General Bajwa and Imran Khan just it's symbolic political face. Only after about a week of the Kartarpur event, Imran Khan too was in his true colours when in an interview given to the Washington Post in early December, he stated that the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its leaders in India have anti-Muslims, anti-Pakistan approach. Incidentally, this is not the first time for the Pakistan Prime Minister, he had expressed similar opinion this tear in September too. Although this time in the same interview with the Washington Post, he also conceded that the 26/11 attack in Mumbai was an act of terrorism and he wanted something to be done about the bombers of Mumbai. Needless to mention that Hafiz Saeed, the mastermind of the terror attack, and Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhavi, associated with the planning and execution, are roaming free in Pakistan.
The Game Plan and Terror Connections
The very fact that the current goodwill initiative has roots in Pakistan Army is enough clue about what is there in the offing for India. Off late, Gurudwara Nankana Shahib in Pakistan has been in news where the Indian officials were forcibly denied entry consecutively for the third time to accompany the Indian pilgrims despite protests from the Ministry of the External Affairs as the venue witnessed Khalistani posters and banners getting publicized. So it would not be surprising if in the near future, we experience more nefarious activities of the Pakistani establishment in the guise of religious tourism.
While Kartarpur had remained out of reach till recently, many devout Sikhs have been visiting Nankana Sahib for years after seeking Visa and travel permission from the Pakistan government. As per standard protocol, the Embassy or High Commission staff of the respective governments maintains contact with their visiting nationals from the security and welfare angle. So far this protocol was followed for the Sikh pilgrims of the Nankana Sahib too but Pakistani security officials have now started denying access to the Indian High Commission staff. Recently, the Indian envoys were prevented from meeting Indian pilgrims consecutively for the third time citing ambiguous security reasons and the Indian government formally registered its protest citing the international legal instruments and conventions like the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, 1961 and the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations, 1963.
The protest was in sequel to the categorical information about the attempts of certain elements during the visit of the Indian pilgrims to Pakistan, to incite communal disharmony and intolerance, and promote secessionist tendencies undermining India's sovereignty and territorial integrity. Pakistan has been formally asked to take necessary measures to ensure that its territory is not used for any hostile propaganda and support for the secessionist movement against India in the light of the commitments made under the Simla Agreement, 1972, and as endorsed in the Lahore Declaration, 1999. Actually, both the Gurudwara Nankana Sahib and Gurudwara Kartarpur are very important shrines for the Sikhs being the places of birth and resting place of Guru Nanak, respectively.
The well-known terrorist and Khalistan propagator Gopal Chawla was also linked with the aforesaid controversy wherein Indian envoys were stopped access to the Gurdwara. His name has also figured during the investigation into the grenade attack on Nirankari Bhawan near Amritsar recently in which three people had died with many injured. His links with Hafiz Saeed and other Islamic terrorists are well established with dozens of images available in the public domain. So it does raises doubts and questions when the same person is seen shaking hands with the Pakistan's Army Chief and sharing moments with the Punjab Minister Sidhu. Actually, Chawla is one the prominent faces of the Khalistan movement that experienced large scale violence and bloodshed in Punjab in 1980s until Indian government's determined efforts and crackdown on terrorism established peace in this border state. Chawla is linked to the Pakistan's Sikh Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee and works in the capacity of its general secretary. It is a well-known fact that several dreaded terrorists and hardened criminals have found shelter in Pakistan where they are branded as freedom fighters and respected civilians.
Actually, the hi-tech wire-fencing along the Jammu & Kashmir border and the state-of-the-art surveillance equipment deployed by the Indian security forces are making infiltration across the border virtually impossible in the normal circumstances. Then since the Indian Army started a crackdown on the terrorism in a mission mode in Kashmir, the left over terrorists are finding their survival very difficult in the valley. There has been a systematic crackdown on the terror funding network also eliminating and draining out all such resources of separatist elements. Then the sustained and systematic diplomatic efforts under the present federal government have rendered Pakistan's nefarious activities fully exposed before the international community. The erstwhile dependable ally and main source of military and financial support, the United States have stopped all such aid to Pakistan. Thus, barring the exception of China and a few Islamic countries, there are absolutely no takers of the Pakistani narratives.
These developments have forced the Pakistani establishment dominated by the army to re-think and plan their subversive strategy against India. So it is not surprising that they are working on the prospects of reviving the Khalistan movement in Punjab by actively aiding and abating such elements. The National Investigation Agency (NIA) had registered a case in May 2018 against Hardeep Singh Nijjar, a Khalistani militant, for the alleged planning of carrying out terrorist attacks in Punjab. Based on intelligence inputs, the Indian Chief of the Army Staff had alerted in November 2018 to remain vigilant against the possible Khalistani terror strikes particularly in Punjab. Only few days after his advisory, two motorcycle borne men made a grenade attack on 18 November on a religious gathering at the Nirankari Bhawan in Amritsar district that rendered three dead and twenty injured. The available reports suggest that the attack was conducted by a pro-Khalistani group backed by Pakistan's ISI.
If the recent events at the Gurudwara Nankana Sahib and terror incidents in Punjab are of any indication, they point towards a deeply-hatched conspiracy to revive the Khalistan movement in Punjab. As such Sikhs are deeply religious and sensitive community, hence the conspiracy to exploit their religious sentiments cannot be ruled out. Also it may not be a mere coincidence that well-known pro-Khalistani elements like Chawla not only have links with the dreaded Islamic terrorists but also an access to Pakistan's Army. Religious sentiments of the Sikhs could be understood with the fact that in spite of proven terror credentials of Jarnail Singh Bhidranwale, a large number of devout Sikhs have still not forgotten or forgiven desecration of the Golden Temple during the Army Operation to flush out militants from the premises. The fact that the Pakistan Army has played an instrumental role in opening the Kartarpur Corridor, it would not be surprising if it is by design to ultimately also use it for the planning and execution of subversive activities in Punjab. Thus event may prove to be a precursor of the revival of Khalistan Movement though we will have to wait for some time for the truth to come out.
Final Words of Wisdom
Whatever goodwill gestures made towards the Sikh community, the truth lies in the fact that Pakistan's foreign policy is largely determined by the Army which thrives on the constant anti-India rants and hate agenda. In the past, civilian government heads of Pakistan indeed showed their willingness to establish good and friendly relations with India. Former Prime Minister Shariff tried with then Indian counterpart Bajpai but their Army sabotaged it by forcing the Kargil War on India and back home Shariff lost his premiership. He responded favourably a second time with Narendra Modi and he was branded as traitor in Pakistan coining a slogan "Modi Ka Jo Yaar Hai, Gaddar Hai" (One who is friend of Modi, is a traitor). Ironically, the same Imran Khan used this slogan during his election campaign with a vicious anti-India rant who is now talking of peace with India.
So should India go by Imran Khan's elusive speech during the groundbreaking ceremony at Kartarpur or rely on the perceived reality what Qureishi said in his "googly" speech and the President of Pakistan in his interview indicating the actual state policy of Pakistan towards India? Even Imran Khan's post-election statements and the latest interview to the Washington Post put a big question mark on his true character and motives when he said that the present Indian government is anti-Muslim, anti-Pakistan. Is he not trying to meddle with India's internal affairs when he speaks about the Indian Muslims and by proxy tries to incite them against the present ruling dispensation?
Notwithstanding these apprehensions and possible dangers, the fact is that as a democratic and welfare state India always wanted the Kartarpur Corridor to open for the sake of millions of Sikh brethren and, undoubtedly, it should materialize early. At the same time, it is also being projected as a diplomatic masterstroke by the very Pakistani establishment. The past experiences indeed suggest that such initiative in Pakistan is not feasible without collusion of the military establishment. If the recent trend of preventing Indian diplomatic staff access to pilgrims at Nankana Sahib and terror incidents in the Indian Punjab are of any indication, it would be for easier for Pakistan to use the Kartarpur Corridor not only for spreading disinformation and inciting pilgrims with anti-India sentiments but also exporting terrorists in disguise. It's not that sane and well-meaning people do not exist in Pakistan but their number is limited and their voice is easily muted. So the author would be extremely happy if his prophetic apprehensions are proven wrong in time to come.