On October 24, officials from the Indian and Pakistani governments met at the zero point on the International Border to sign an agreement operationalizing the Kartarpur Corridor. This corridor connects the Dera Baba Nanak shrine in India’s Punjab with Gurdwara Darbar Sahib in Pakistan’s Punjab and the agreement guarantees Indian pilgrims visa-free access to this corridor to travel to the holy site in Pakistan. Officials on both sides had laid the foundation stone for the corridor last November but exacerbated bilateral tensions between India and Pakistan in the interim, particularly after the Pulwama attack and the Balakot airstrikes, left many wondering about its fate. Despite tensions, the construction of the corridor continued and it is slated to be inaugurated simultaneously by the prime ministers of both countries later this week, just in time to commemorate the founder of Sikhism Guru Nanak’s 550th birth anniversary celebrations on November 12. The corridor’s inauguration provides an opportune moment to discuss its significance for India-Pakistan relations and how it may affect bilateral ties going forward.
What is the Kartarpur Corridor?
The Kartarpur corridor is a 2.5 mile stretch that links Indian pilgrims with Gurdwara Darbar Sahib in Kartarpur in the Narowal district of Pakistan, which is considered the second holiest site in Sikhism as it is believed to be the place where Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism, spent the last 18 years of his life. The gurdwara—which means a “gateway to the guru”—thus holds tremendous religious and sentimental value to the Sikh community. In the corridor’s absence, travelers had to cover an arduous, approximately 78-mile journey instead and under strict visa regulations. The corridor leads directly from the border to the gurdwara with its sides fenced off, confining travel to the shrine only. Pilgrims are required to pre-register with the Indian Ministry of Home Affairs, which will compile the list of pilgrims ten days in advance of scheduled travel and send it over to Pakistan for approval. Although there is no visa requirement, travelers need to carry their passport and the electronic travel authorization received from the ministry. As a goodwill gesture, Prime Minister Imran Khan of Pakistan has waived off two requirements exclusively for Sikhs: they will no longer be required to carry their passports (only valid identification), and they will not need to register ten days in advance. He also announced that pilgrims would not be charged an entry fee (normally USD $20) on the day of the inauguration of the corridor and on Guru Nanak’s birth anniversary on November 12 this year.
What is the history and significance of the corridor?
Though the road to the corridor’s completion has been a bumpy one, replete with considerable disagreements between the two sides over technical and logistical issues, the Kartarpur Corridor could be a confidence-building measure in the politically-strained and historically-charged relationship between India and Pakistan.
The demand for visa-free travel to the shrine by the Sikh community has existed since the Partition of the subcontinent in 1947. A hastily-drawn Radcliffe line dividing India and Pakistan placed the shrine in Pakistan, which became inaccessible to Sikhs living across the border in India. Former Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee proposed a visa-free corridor back in 1999 when he undertook a historic bus journey from Delhi to Lahore to normalize relations with Pakistan. In 2000, after being refurbished by the Pakistani government, the Kartarpur shrine was opened to Indians but only those holding a valid visa, who could visit in restricted numbers. From then until late last year, the Indian government raised the issue a few times but little progress could be made towards realizing the corridor. However, soon after the Imran Khan government assumed office, it announced that it would set up the corridor, catalyzing the construction process on Pakistan’s side. India announced its decision to build its portion of the corridor soon later (although Indian officials asserted that it was not intended as a response to the Pakistani proposal).
How is the corridor likely to impact India-Pakistan relations?
Indo-Pak relations have undergone a particularly tense period following India’s decision to withdraw Article 370 from Jammu & Kashmir. Islamabad responded by downgrading its diplomatic mission in New Delhi and suspending bus and train services. This came after the two nuclear-armed neighbors engaged in an aerial dogfight in February. The construction and inauguration of the Kartarpur Corridor in the face of these tensions and the ability of both sides to work together should be seen as a positive development and a ray of hope.
Though the road to the corridor’s completion has been a bumpy one, replete with considerable disagreements between the two sides over technical and logistical issues, the Kartarpur Corridor could be a confidence-building measure in the politically-strained and historically-charged relationship between India and Pakistan. The Kartarpur Corridor holds the potential to foster religious tourism, promote people-to-people contact to reduce the trust deficit on both sides, and in turn perhaps aid dispute resolution by keeping avenues of dialogue open.
National security concerns dominate discussion among policy elites on both sides and Kartarpur is not the magical solution to resolve deeply contentious issues between the two countries, such as on Kashmir—in fact, the Indian side has asserted that operationalizing Kartarpur does not mean “bilateral dialogue will start.” Nevertheless, it illustrates that the two sides are sometimes able to set their differences aside to serve the broader interests of their people, and it is thus a laudable achievement for the two South Asian neighbors.
Image 1: Wikimedia Commons
Image 2: Narinder Nanu via Getty Images