Last week, Sikh pilgrims from India streamed into the Kartarpur gurduwara in Pakistan. At the same time, Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan performed the “ground breaking” ceremony for a 4-km corridor connecting Kartarpur in and Dera Baba Nanak in Gurdaspur in India. As gestures go, it was a powerful one. Kartarpur, where Guru Nanak spent the last years of his life, is a sacred site for Sikhs. The two sides of the Punjab, brutally torn apart by Partition, are bound by nostalgia for a shared past as well as memories of violence and loss. A corridor that would let Indians cross into Pakistani territory without a visa has a symbolic significance that will not be lost on either side. By inaugurating the corridor, Khan answers a long-standing demand on the part of the Indian government, dating back to the days of the Atal Bihari Vajpayee administration.
In a subcontinent where religiosity runs deep, such gestures have emotional resonances and high political visibility. After Kartarpur, there have been requests for more places of worship to be opened up. Former Jammu and Kashmir chief minister Mehbooba Mufti dashed off a letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, asking that the Sharada Peeth, a place of worship across the Line of Control, be made accessible to Kashmiri Pandits. Several other temples were cut off to Hindus after Partition, while mosques and shrines in India became inaccessible to Muslims across the border. But the volatile history of the subcontinent, where thousands have also been killed in the name of religion, should caution against using such appeal to sentiment as a means to lasting peace.
It has been argued that, despite the apparent thaw, there has been little progress on the strategic front. The groundbreaking ceremony at Kartarpur took place just days after the 10th anniversary of the 26/11 attacks. A decade of negotiations have failed to yield much results, with one of the main accused, Lashkar-e-Taiba commander Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi, out on bail, and the other, Lashkar chief Hafiz Saeed, increasingly rehabilitated into the political mainstream in Pakistan, even though his party failed to make much headway in the general elections this year. While India urges a firmer Pakistani crackdown on terror, Khan pushes for talks on Kashmir, which the Indian government insists is an internal issue. Even so-called low-hanging fruit, like the Siachen and Sir Creek disputes, have been put in cold storage.
While these trickier issues await resolution, much could have been done to prepare the ground. But even the much-touted “people to people contact” initiative, which was supposed to thaw the ice, has very nearly ceased to exist. There have been official attempts from both sides to ensure the two countries were culturally cut off from each other. Early this year, Pakistani performing artistes were banned from working on Indian films. Pakistani courts responded by proscribing the broadcast of Indian films and television shows on local channels in the country. India has also denied literary figures and filmmakers a visa to attend seminars and award ceremonies this side of the border. Meanwhile, trade ties have failed to take off, despite India granting “most favoured nation” status to Pakistan.
Restoring these ties would be quieter measures, which may not have the same emotional appeal as high-octane religious gestures. But perhaps the peace process needs to be shifted away from the mysteries of faith to more pragmatic ground if more lasting, substantive ties are to be forged.