Kartarpur Corridor reopens: Impact on India-Pakistan Relations
The Indian political spectrum has been beset by one surprise after another in the last few days and these developments are bound to have implications not only within the Indian domestic fold but also on the nature of its relationship with Pakistan. In a rather unexpected move, the Indian government finally gave the go ahead for the re-opening of the Kartarpur corridor with Pakistan after closing it in March 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Pakistan had re-opened the corridor on its side in October 2020. However, the Indian government remained reluctant to open the corridor even as Covid infection rates dipped across the two countries and as vaccines became available against the virus. This suggested that the closure of the corridor was also for political reasons.
Kartarpur corridor, a visa free special border crossing, connects the Gurdwara Darbar Sahib in Pakistan with India. This unique land corridor inaugurated by both governments in November 2019 was hailed as a significant breakthrough between the two sides as bilateral tensions remained high due to the annulment of Indian-administered Kashmir’s special status by the Indian government in August 2019. The Kartarpur agreement highlighted at one end that the Pakistani leadership and the country’s security quarters were ready to forego past concerns and wanted to open the country for religious tourism and in particular Sikh pilgrims from India who had hitherto used binoculars to view the Gurdwara from across the border. On the Indian side, this development echoed the political weight of Sikh religious sentiments that ultimately forced an Indian government bitterly opposed to any engagement with Pakistan agree to this arrangement.
The inauguration of this corridor brought significant soft power and prestige to Pakistan and Pakistani premier Imran Khan, yet there were not any sizeable domestic political gains to be made from the event. However, within India this development did raise a few eyebrows and created new ripples within Indian Punjab’s politics. For the Indian security corridors, the to and fro movement of Sikh pilgrims on such a large scale into Pakistan remained a security risk. Former Indian Punjab Chief Minister Amrinder Singh had questioned the real intent of Pakistan behind this project and warned that it was an undertaking by Pakistani intelligence agencies alongside the secessionist Khalistani groups to foment chaos within Indian Punjab. However, once both governments had formalized the agreement, he didn’t oppose the corridor.
Any future closure of the corridor will be accompanied by political costs both for ruling cadres within Indian Punjab and in New Delhi.
On the other hand, the political fortunes of Indian cricketer turned politician Navjot Singh Sidhu rose emphatically as a result of the corridor opening. Thanks to his friendship with Pakistani premier Khan, Sidhu was able to float the idea of the corridor again to Pakistani authorities which this time acquiesced to his request. Sidhu veritably became the man who delivered the corridor for Indian Sikhs pitching him into a leadership contest with then Punjab CM and Congress supremo Amrinder Singh. This contest recently settled in favor of Sidhu when CM Singh was asked by the party high command to resign.
Due to these political and security sensitivities, the closure of the corridor initially due to the Covid-19 pandemic was extended by the Indian authorities. The new status quo might have lasted longer but other developments within Indian politics compelled the government to revise its decision. Most significant in this regard has been the Farmers Protest Movement against legislation brought by the BJP government of Prime Minister Narinder Modi. With Punjab as the epicenter of this protest movement, BJP’s ally of more than two decades Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) parted ways and anti-BJP sentiment reached unforeseen levels. This threatened BJP with complete political annihilation in Punjab and compelled its Punjab cadres to request the government to re-open the corridor to diffuse the prevailing negativity and to stand a chance in the upcoming provincial elections. It also appears that the controversial farm laws have been repealed for similar political reasons.
These developments further cement the significance of Kartarpur corridor. Any future closure of the corridor will be accompanied by political costs both for ruling cadres within Indian Punjab and in New Delhi. As politicians within Indian Punjab ramp up attempts to score political points on the re-opening of the corridor and as pilgrims cross into Pakistan more and more, the demand to open further land bridges with Pakistan and soften up visa regimes particularly for religious pilgrimage will only increase. Such developments will eventually render bellicose anti-Pakistan rhetoric untenable at least within Indian Punjab and may inadvertently contribute toward the cause of peace between the two nations.
Pakistani leadership probably and rather unwittingly played its best move vis-à-vis India by agreeing to this corridor. This corridor ensures a level of people-to-people connectivity previously unseen and since it has materialized from an idea into reality, it will become a permanent feature of bilateral politics and will be a source of political capital for politicians specifically within Indian Punjab.
- Umar Karim is a doctoral researcher at the University of Birmingham. His research focuses on the evolution of Saudi Arabia’s strategic outlook, the Saudi-Iran tussle, conflict in Syria, and the geopolitics of Turkey, Iran and Pakistan. Twitter: @UmarKarim89