A Bridge Too Far

The momentary goodwill rendered by Pakistan’s offer to India to open the Kartarpur Corridor has evaporated, reaffirming some of the bilateral relationship’s worst and more deeply ingrained pathologies.

These include the preposterously high costs of any grand re-imagining of the other; the all-too-familiar public vivisectioning in India of those who appear soft on Pakistan; the BJP’s privileging of stalemate over forward movement; and the fact that even tentative steps towards normalisation, like the fragile ceasefire agreement earlier this year on the LOC, are nearly always followed by policy reversals.

At the same time, the Kartarpur offer still shows that despite the challenges, efforts to normalise relations and institute a rational public discourse are neither impossible nor untenable.

The resumption of people-to-people contact and the implementation of already negotiated CBMs on visa liberalisation are among long-standing recommendations from the Chaophraya Dialogue, now the longest running Track II dialogue between India and Pakistan.

Starting next year, thousands of pilgrims will be able to use the four-kilometre long corridor, marking the first time since 1965 that devotees will be able to cross the international border without a visa.

But for such CBMs to be sustainable, some degree of narrative-building is necessary. So far the sounds from politicians as well as India’s increasingly bellicose army have been troubling. It is perhaps time to acknowledge that New Delhi’s parochialism has little to do with its incessant electoral compulsions.

Despite recent Congress victories in India’s heartland, this is the new intolerant India that Islamabad must contend with.

Notwithstanding the larger bilateral roadblock, Pakistan and India should welcome the revitalisation of people-to-people contact. First proposed as a confidence-building measure by former prime minister Benazir Bhutto in 1988, the visa-free crossing connecting gurdwaras in Kartarpur in Pakistan and Dera Nanak in India will allow pilgrims to pay their respects at the site where Guru Nanak spent his final years.

For a region characterised more by civilian casualties on the LOC than the free movement of people and goods, this is quite exceptional. Earlier this year, over 200 Hindu pilgrims were stopped by India from travelling to Pakistan. A month later, Pakistani pilgrims attending the Urs of Khawaja Nizamuddin were denied visas in contravention of a 1974 protocol on visits to religious shrines.

Given the region’s drift towards unfettered majoritarianism and exclusion, any attempt to broaden the space afforded to minorities in public life, together with the co-creation of religious harmony, should be strongly welcomed. Progressive-minded Pakistanis and Indians all have a stake in a Subcontinent that privileges fundamental freedoms for all citizens.

On the security front, meanwhile, a formalisation of the 2003 ceasefire agreement, another Chaophraya Dialogue recommendation, would be a pragmatic step that addresses low-intensity conflict and hot flashes along the LOC and the Working Boundary.

But corridors must be two-way streets. The limitations to what Pakistan can achieve in isolation of political reciprocity from India are expressly clear. A hardening of Indian attitudes suggests it is unwise to expect simultaneity or spontaneity from a government that uses the false propaganda of surgical strikes to whip up nationalist fervour, regardless of where it is in its election calendar. India’s unapologetic ghettoisation of the Kartarpur Corridor as a one-off initiative rather than a bridge to a broad-based dialogue should also disabuse peacemakers of the belief that the BJP views the corridor as anything more than as a tokenistic gesture.

The Pakistani prime minister’s offer to open up other religious routes, including Shardapeeth Neelam Valley, will likely be met with similar unimaginativeness.

This is not to suggest that Pakistan shouldn’t hitch its wagon to a more regionally connected and open neighbourhood. But rather, to caution against the false hope that India will soften its tone after next year’s election. New Delhi’s intention of carrying South Asia into a more polarised decade is regrettable, but clear.

A version of this article appeared in The News on 19-12-2018.


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