The reopening of the Kartarpur Religious Corridor by India (which connects Dera Baba Nanak shrine in Gurdaspur – India with Darbar Sahib – Kartarpur, Pakistan) on 18th November 2021, the eve of the founder of the Sikh faith, Guru Nanak Dev’s 552 birth anniversary (November 19, 2021) is important for a number of reasons.
The corridor which was inaugurated in November 2019 (the 550th birth anniversary year of Guru Nanak Dev) in spite of the tensions between both countries, enables Sikhs and devotees belonging to other communities, to pay obeisance at Kartarpur — a town established by Guru Nanak, where the founder of the Sikh faith spent the last few years of his life along with his followers (during this period, Guru Nanak gave practical shape to his spiritual thoughts and his vision for an egalitarian and truly inclusive society, while also giving importance to hard work and labor).
The corridor had been closed in March 2020, after the outbreak of the covid19 pandemic. It would be important to point out, that days before the announcement of the re-opening of the Kartarpur corridor, 3000 Sikh pilgrims had been issued visas to pay obeisance at Sikh shrines including Gurudwara Janam Asthan (Nankana Sahib), the birthplace of Guru Nanak and Gurudwara Darbar Sahib (Kartarpur) and to participate in the celebrations on the occasion of the 552nd birth anniversary of Guru Nanak Dev.
Kartarpur Corridor is important, because it has the potential to open new vistas not only in the area of religious tourism and people to people contact, but also pave the way for significant trade opportunities through the two Punjab’s via the Attari (India) and Wagah (Pakistan) land crossing as well as other borders like Hussainiwala (India)-Kasur (Pakistan). After the inauguration of the Kartarpur Corridor, in November 2019, Pakistan PM Imran Khan had spoken in favor of giving a boost to religious tourism and in the past two years, the renovation of a number of Sikh and Hindu shrines has begun and a number of shrines have been handed over by the Pakistan government, back to the respective communities (Pakistan’s economy could benefit significantly from religious tourism and restoration of common heritage of both the Punjab’s). The international community had welcomed this initiative and the UN Chief Antonio Gunterres who visited Kartarpur in February 2020 said
‘When we see in so many parts of the world fighting in the name of of religion, it’s necessary to say that religions unite us for peace and the best symbol is this shrine’.
Third, what is important is that the re-opening of the Kartarpur Corridor has received bi-partisan support especially in the state of Punjab (India) which goes to elections in 2022. All the major political outfits of the state have been urging the central government to open up the corridor. Chief Minister of Punjab (India) Charanjit Singh Channi along with his cabinet colleagues paid obeisance at Darbar Sahib (Kartarpur) on November 18, 2021. While in the past too, political outfits of Punjab have been batting for bilateral trade and closer economic ties with Pakistan, in recent years ever since the downward spiral at the national level, there have been very few voices which have been vociferously lobbying for the same (a few political leaders, civil activists, farmer activists have flagged this issue repeatedly).
If one were to specifically examine the possibility of India-Pakistan trade relations improving in the short run, it is important to bear in mind, that after the announcement of a ceasefire along the Line of Control (LOC), in February 2021, there was talk about resumption of bilateral trade, Pakistan had removed a ban on import of cotton, yarns and sugar from India, though at the lost moment this could not go ahead. Significantly, in the past two years, Pakistan has been importing essential commodities, such as sugar and wheat, at very high prices from a number of countries, and there is again pressure from certain lobbies to resume imports of certain commodities from India. The demand for resumption of bilateral trade through Wagah-Attari is likely to gain ground in Punjab (India) since all walks of life will benefit from robust trade between both sides, the snapping of trade ties in 2019 hit the economy of the state’s border belt, especially the tertiary sector. Punjab Chief Minister, Charanjit Singh Channi after paying obeisance at Gurudwara Darbar Sahib (Kartarpur) said revival of bilateral trade via the Punjab’s will lead to ‘a new era of unprecedented progress and prosperity’. For Pakistan also it makes sense for resumption of bilateral trade and importing essential commodities from India via the Wagah-Attari land crossing.
Regional dynamics – India-Afghanistan-Pakistan trilateral
If one were to look at the issue of regional connectivity beyond the bilateral relationship, the demand by a Taliban delegation for allowing Indian wheat to transit through Pakistan is important, the latter has allowed 50,000 tonnes of wheat through its territory(Pakistan had allowed Afghan goods to enter India via Wagah in 2020). It would also be pertinent to out, that the Afghan Deputy Foreign Minister, Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai, had stated that the Taliban wanted robust trade relations with India (including through the Wagah border crossing).
The Kartarpur Corridor provides an opportunity not just to calm down the tempers between both countries, but to explore possible synergies in trade and people to people contact especially between through both Punjab’s. The corridor has been dubbed as not just a corridor of peace, but also one of boundless opportunities for both Punjab’s, it remains to be seen if in the changing geopolitical situation in the region and the economic impact of the covid19 pandemic, Islamabad and New Delhi resume people to people linkages and focus on strengthening economic ties.