India-Pakistan relationship is considered to be one of the most complex relationships between any of two independent states in the world. There are many hawks and quite a few doves that try to influence the foreign policy decision making process in their respective countries. Lack of mutual trust, unresolved issues, continuing hostility, cross-border terrorism, and the unending conflict paint a bleak picture of the bilateral relationship of the two nuclear armed arch-rivals in South Asia. It is often informed by a heavily securitised narrative that prevails across the India-Pakistan border and makes the relationship look like a zero-sum two persons game where intended gain for one means to be the equivalent loss to the other. A common civilisational heritage, remaining socio-cultural linkages, and occasionally limited politico-economic cooperation offer quite a different aspect of otherwise a conflictual relationship and in a way keep the hope of a peaceful and cooperative relationship alive.
The last seven decades have often witnessed conflict overshadowing cooperation between the two neighbours. Possibly, intense conflict and meaningful cooperation have never existed at the same time. However, that seems to have changed with the signing of agreement on the Kartarpur Sahib Corridor. Notably, the Sikh community in Indian Punjab wanted easy access to the highly revered Kartarpur Sahib Gurdwara where Guru Nanak Dev, the first guru of Sikhism, spent the last 18 years of life. The partition of British India in 1947 deprived the Indian Sikh community unhindered access to the holy site, as Kartarpur became part of newly created state of Pakistan. Indian government and members of civil society raised the issue with Pakistan on multiple occasions; however, no concrete steps were taken to address it until 2018.
The Kartarpur Initiative
It is important to note that the process to build the corridor was initiated at a time when bilateral relations were at their lowest ebb. During Imran Khan’s swearing in ceremony in August 2018, Pakistan’s Chief of Army Staff (COAS) Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa had informally hinted to an Indian politician Navjot Singh Sidhu about Pakistan’s readiness to open up the Kartarpur Sahib Corridor. In November 2018, the Union Cabinet of India passed a resolution to celebrate 550th birth anniversary of Guru Nanak Dev and approved the building of a corridor from Dera Baba Nanak in Gurdaspur in India to the international border. India also urged Pakistan to develop a corridor from the international border to Kartarpur Sahib in its territory.
Pakistan pleasantly surprised many by accepting India’s longstanding demand and announced to open up the Kartarpur Corridor to Indian pilgrims for Guru Nanak Dev’s 550th birth anniversary. In November 2018, ground-breaking ceremonies were held in India and Pakistan jointly to commence the construction of the corridor. The Pakistani leadership, especially Prime Minister Imran Khan tried to use the development to resume bilateral dialogue; however, India did not show any enthusiasm and kept the process strictly limited to Kartarpur initiative. As the officials on both sides were discussing various issues regarding the corridor, on February 14, 2019 terrorists targeted a convoy of Indian security forces in Pulwama killing 40 personnel of Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF). In response to the gruesome terrorist attack, India conducted a pre-emptive non-military strike on a Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) training camp in Balakot leading to a high tensions standoff. Notwithstanding, these events the talks on Kartarpur Sahib Corridor continued unabated and finally culminated in an agreement on October 24, 2019.
The agreement provides a formal framework under which pilgrims from India shall be permitted to visit the Gurdwara Darbar Sahib in Kartarpur using the four-and-a-half-kilometre long corridor. The corridor will be open from dawn to dusk throughout the year, except on public holidays or for exigencies/emergencies to be notified to India in advance.As per the provisions of the agreement, pilgrims with valid passports or Indian Overseas Citizenship (IOC) cards either as individuals or in group can visit Kartarpur Sahib without obtaining Pakistani visa. Those visiting Kartarpur using the Corridor will have to return India on the same day. Although, there is a limit of 5,000 pilgrims per day, it can be enhanced on special occasions.
In a development that surprised many on November 1, 2019 Imran Khan announced the waiver of the requirement of Indian passport/IOC card and 10 days prior registration exclusively for Sikh pilgrims. His tweet read:
For Sikhs coming for pilgrimage to Kartarpur from India, I have waived off 2 requirements: i) they won’t need a passport-just a valid ID; ii) they no longer have to register 10 days in advance. Also no fee will be charged on day of inauguration & on Guruji’s 550th birthday.
It was considered another goodwill gesture for Indian Sikh community. Briefing the foreign diplomats in Islamabad on November 6, 2019 Pakistan’s Foreign Secretary Dr. Mohammad Faisal underlined that the step was taken “to meet the long-standing request of Nanak Naam Levas” (Guru Nanak Dev’s followers) across the world and more specifically the Sikh community in India. He further added that to celebrate the 550th birth anniversary of Guru Nanak, Pakistan was issuing a special coin and a commemorative stamp.
The euphoria among some sections in Pakistan and India about further concessions granted by Imran Khan to Sikh devotees proved to be short-lived as Director General of Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) Maj. Gen. Asif Ghafoor later insisted that passport/IOC card was mandatory for visiting Kartarpur. Speaking to a private news channel on November 6, he made it clear that it would be a legal entry for Sikh pilgrims, thus a permit or a passport-based identity was required. This created an embarrassing situation for Imran Khan leading to some confusion in India too. In such a scenario, it was natural for India to go by the agreement and not by the tweet. Thus, Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) spokesperson Raveesh Kumar stated that passport would be needed to visit the Kartarpur.
Controversial Video and Showcasing the Bomb
As the two sides were preparing for the upcoming event, a controversy erupted over a music video, released by Pakistan. The video, produced by Pakistan’s Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, was launched at Pakistani High Commission in London. In the video, a picture of Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, Amrik Singh Khalsa and Maj. Gen. (Dismissed) Shabeg Singh—who are known Khalistani separatist leaders killed during Operation Blue Star in June 1984—featured which did not go down well in India. Reacting to the video, MEA spokesperson Raveesh Kumar condemned Pakistani attempt to undermine the Kartarpur spirit. He categorically stated that “We condemn Pakistan’s attempt to undermine the spirit under which the pilgrimage is supposed to be undertaken. We have lodged a strong protest.” He further added that “We have been assured repeatedly by Pakistani side during our discussions that they will not allow any anti-India elements and propaganda during the pilgrimage and event. We demand that they remove the objectionable video and printed material which is being circulated.” As the video controversy was yet to be resolved, an exhibit showcasing an alleged unexploded bomb dropped by Indian Air Force in 1971 came up at the site of Gurudwara Darbar Sahib. A nearby board describes the “Miracle of Waheguruji” in these words:
Indian Air Force dropped this bomb during 1971 at Gurdwara Darbar Sahib Sri Kartarpur Sahib with the aim to destroy it. However, this evil design could not be materialised due to BLESSING of WAHEGURU JI (Almighty Allah). The said bomb landed into Sri Khoo Sahib (Sacred Well) and this Darbar Sahib remained unhurt. It is pertinent to mention that this is the same sacred well from where Sri Guru Nanak Dev Ji used to get water to irrigate his fields.
Pilgrims visiting Kartarpur although appreciate the move to open the corridor, but were critical of “dirty politics” by the Pakistani side. They unanimously rejected Pakistani propaganda to put India into a negative light. Prithi Singh, a Sikh devotee, was reported to have said that “We have come here on a pilgrimage and to observe the birth anniversary of the Guru. We have no desire for any propaganda, nor will we tolerate any.” Such incidents, however, create suspicion in India about the real motives of Pakistan. Pakistan’s support to separatist elements in Indian Punjab is no secret. In August 2015, Gen. Hameed Gul, who headed Pakistan’s premier intelligence agency—Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI)—during 1987 to 1989, in an interview to Dr. Shahid Masood on News One (a Pakistani TV Channel) accepted that Sikh separatists used to buy arms from his contractors in Pakistan.
Zeeba T Hashmi in her piece published in Daily Times, a Pakistani English Daily, in 2015 raised certain questions about Pakistan’s role in Sikh separatism in India and went on to underline that some separatist elements were “again trying to revive their movement with the help of Pakistani intermediaries. Some pockets of support for Khalistan are still visible in Pakistan today, with the state taking no action against them.” Pro-separatist elements living in countries like Canada, United Kingdom and United States are often accused of getting support from the ISI. It is Canada and United Kingdom from where most of the funds are reported to have been pumped to support their designs against India. In December 2018, a little known US-based outfit Sikhs For Justice (SFJ) wrote a letter to Imran Khan to “politically support Referendum 2020 movement to liberate Punjab”in order to take revenge of Pakistan’s dismemberment in 1971.Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, who wrote the letter to Imran Khan, is the legal advisor of the SFJ and considered to be an ISI agent.
The Inauguration Ceremonies
Ceremonies were held in India and Pakistan to inaugurate the Kartarpur Sahib Corridor on November 9, 2019. Speaking on the occasion, Prime Minister Narendra Modi stated the opening of the corridor has brought double happiness and now it would be easy to pay obeisance at the Darbar Sahib Gurudwara in Kartarpur. He thanked his Pakistani counterpart Imran Khan Niazi for understanding and respecting Indian sentiments and working accordingly.Later, he flagged off the first batch of pilgrims marking the formal opening of the corridor. A total 562 pilgrims visited Kartarpur which included former Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh, Punjab Chief Minister Captain Amrinder Singh, Navjot Singh Siddhu and Sunny Deol.
Manmohan Singh led the first batch of Sikh pilgrims that crossed over to Pakistan. He termed it a “big moment” and stated that “I hope India and Pakistan relations improve enormously as a result of this beginning.” Captain Amrinder Singh remarked that “This is a beginning, I hope it’s going to continue and many more gurdwaras are going to be allowed.” Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan welcomed and congratulated all the visiting devotees for the 550th birth anniversary of Shri Guru Nanak Dev. During his speech in Kartarpur, he argued that messengers of God always carried two messages—humanity and justice. One can see these two virtues present in the teachings of Guru Nanak who talked about bringing the people together, and not dividing them. He further added that Kartarpur had the same value for Sikh what Madina had for Muslims. In the end he expressed happiness to having opened the corridor for the Sikh community.
Ever since the civil-military elites agreed to allow Indian Sikh pilgrims an easy access to Kartarpur Sahib, Pakistan has been attempting to project a different imageof itself to the world in general and region in particular. To many, it appears to be a sudden change of heart which took place after Imran Khan came to power. However, some others see it as part of a larger well-crafted strategy to suit the fast changing geo-political and geo-strategic environment. Indeed, it was the seasoned politician and former Prime Minister Mian Muhmmad Nawaz Sharif who had felt the need to at least have a semblance of mending fences with India. He not only realised the growing asymmetry between the two countries, especially in terms of economic growth and techno-scientific progress, but read the upcoming geo-political and geo-strategic changes correctly. It was not out of the blue that during the election campaign in 2013, Nawaz Sharif pitched for improvement in bilateral relations and after the electoral victory famously stated to pick up the thread from where it was left in 1999. In spite of an unfavourable civil-military balance at home, he tried to push through the normalisation process. Defying all the odds, he even visited India to attend the oath taking ceremony of Shri Narendra Modi in May 2014. However, his efforts did not bear the much fruit due to reasons and circumstances beyond his control.
The all-powerful security establishment, that did not trust Nawaz Sharif and initially created hurdles in the normalisation process with India, appears to have realised the utility of his strategy of late when Pakistan’s economic mess came to the surface and it stared regional and international isolation for its role in supporting wide range of terror outfits in the region and beyond. This was further complicated by India’s toughened stand and American President Donald Trump’s public posturing on Pakistan. In the wake of these new found realities and a fast changing geo-political and geo-strategic environment, Pakistani leadership realised the need to shrug off its old image of a state harbouring non-state actors to achieve foreign policy objectives. Thus, Imran Khan started speaking of peace and normalisation of relationship with India. India did not trust his words. In order to appear more reasonable and generate some amount of goodwill, he decided to accept India’s long-standing request to provide easy access to Gurudwara Darbar Sahib for Sikh devotees. The corridor could also be used in future as a lever to put pressure on India to grant some concessions to Pakistan. Who knows in future, in response to India’s “talks and terror cannot go together” Pakistan could say “Pilgrimage and unresolved issues cannot go together”? Additionally, as hawks in India think, Pakistan might use its “expertise” to cultivate separatist elements among those visiting Darbar Sahib for pilgrimage.
Given the history and nature of India-Pakistan relations, any positive development reducing tensions and generating goodwill is always welcome. The Kartarpur Sahib Corridor’s opening up is one of the rarest of the rare moments in India-Pakistan relationship amidst heightened tensions between the two countries. Initiatives like this suggest that irrespective of the nature of their conflictual relationship, India and Pakistan can cooperate for a meaningful outcome. Due to this very reason sections of civil society in India and Pakistan consider the development as a silver lining in Indo-Pak relations. Although, it is difficult as well as premature to predict the future course of bilateral relationship, with dust settling on India’s move in Jammu & Kashmir one should not be surprised if Kartarpur initiative breaks the logjam and paves the way for some meaningful interaction between the two countries.
 Until November 2019, Sikh pilgrims used to take arduous route to Kartarpur via Lahore. Given the nature of India-Pakistan relations, it was never easy for pilgrims to get Pakistani visa for the purpose.
 MOFA (2019), “Pakistan-India sign the Agreement on Kartarpur Sahib Corridor,” Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Islamabad, October 24, 2019.
 Tweet by Imran Khan’s official twitter handle on November 1, 2019.
 MOFA (2019), “Foreign Secretary Briefs Diplomatic Corps on Kartarpur Sahib Corridor,” Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Islamabad, November 6, 2019.
 The Dawn (2019), “Permit or passport-based identity must for Kartarpur, says ISPR chief,” November 7, 2019, https://www.dawn.com/news/1515383/passport-must-for-pilgrims-says-ispr-chief
 Such embarrassments are not new for Pakistan. There have been many such instances when a decision of civilian leadership was publicly vetoed by military.
 PID (2019), “Tourism Networking Event Pakistan an Attractive Tourism Destination With Huge Investment Potential: Nafees ZakaraiKartarpur Song Launched at the High Commission,” Press Information Department, Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Islamabad, Press Release, November 8, 2019, http://pid.gov.pk/site/press_detail/12252
 “MEA Condemns Pak's Push For Khalistan Separatism In Kartarpur Video,” November 7, 2019, https://www.republicworld.com/india-news/general-news/mea-condemns-paks-push-for-khalistan-separatism-in-kartarpur-video.html
 Hindustan Times (2019), “After Bhindranwale poster, Pakistan displays ‘Indian bomb’ at Durbar Sahib in Kartarpur,” November 8, 2019, https://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/after-bhindranwale-poster-pakistan-displays-indian-bomb-at-durbar-sahib-in-kartarpur/story-kdwy3j2sQUiy0ONCE51NXP.html
 The Indian Express (2019), “We have come to pray, won’t tolerate any political propaganda: Sikh pilgrims in Kartarpur,” November 12, 2019, https://indianexpress.com/article/india/we-have-come-to-pray-wont-tolerate-any-political-propaganda-sikh-pilgrims-in-kartarpur-6115425/
 Hashmi, Zeeba T (2015), “Pakistan’s involvement in the Khalistan movement,” Daily Times, October 15, 2015, https://dailytimes.com.pk/98062/pakistans-involvement-in-the-khalistan-movement/
 Business Standard (2019), “Khalistan movement getting support from ISI-backed Muslim community in UK, says expert,” June 6, 2019, https://www.business-standard.com/article/news-ani/khalistan-movement-getting-support-from-isi-backed-muslim-community-in-uk-says-expert-119070600123_1.html
 The New Indian Express (2018), “Pakistan's plot to back Khalistan movement exposed,” December 18, 2018, https://www.newindianexpress.com/world/2018/dec/18/pakistans-plot-to-back-khalistan-movement-exposed-1913224.html
 Singh, Vijaita (2019), “First batch of 562 pilgrims visits Kartarpur, praises facilities,” The Hindu, November 9, 2019, https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/first-batch-of-562-pilgrims-visits-kartarpur-praises-facilities/article29933005.ece
 Pakistan is often portrayed as a state providing safe haven to some of the most dangerous terror outfits and radical ideologies of the world. Its role in cross border terror activities is well known and documented.