Pilgrim movement, wheat to Afghanistan and hockey diplomacy: A new thaw in frosty India-Pakistan ties?

Imran Khan’s move, like the Kartarpur Corridor, is bound to have the blessings of the powerful Pakistan Army, writes Mahendra Ved for South Asia Monitor  

Mahendra Ved Nov 21, 2021
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Punjab CM at Kartarpur Sahib and Pakistani hockey team in India

The generally troubled India-Pakistan relationship is witnessing a rare thaw with the opening of the Punjab border for Indian pilgrims to visit the Kartarpur Sahab shrine, the final resting place for Guru Nanak, the founder of the Sikh faith. There is a scramble among the governments, arms of their leaders folded in obeisance, all taking credit for facilitating the flower-and-fragrance religious dedication. 

This is an event-based move and bears no relation to any of the matters of dispute that bedevil the two neighbours. Access is through a corridor that runs a short four kilometres into Pakistan. It may be no more than a brief opening of the door, allowing just a toe-hold, going by experience of the past seven decades of deep mutual mistrust and competing interests that want to keep the relationship on the boil. There have been no formal talks for several years. 

Both sides are responding to the ground situation that compels hoisting the white flag. If the Corridor did not open last year, Covid-19 is the convenient culprit. For now, the naysayers are keeping quiet. It would not take more than a spark for the latter to revert to we-warned-you stance. 

It is a good augury that Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted his "happiness" at the Kartarpur Corridor opening to facilitate the pilgrims’ movement. Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi has welcomed “Sikh Yatrees from India”. The use of a non-Urdu expression is unusual. 

Good augury

It augurs well also because both the Indian and Pakistani governments, otherwise at daggers drawn, are facilitating a religious visit that many people on both sides and among the world community desire. Diplomats consider it one of the ‘doable’ measures to hold down mutual mistrust and tensions.   

Pakistan recently opened a Hindu shrine and the government cut through bureaucratic blockade and court cobwebs to confirm a plot of land in Islamabad for building a temple by the minority Hindu community. The Chief Justice of Pakistan attended a post-Diwali ceremony at another Hindu shrine, reading out the Constitution that guarantees freedom to people of faiths other than the majority Muslims. 

But it is a fact that Pakistan has in the recent past denied access to Indian Sikhs to observe the anniversary of Sikh Guru Arjan Dev and on the death anniversary of Maharaja Ranjit Singh. Its Sikh shrines are managed by the Evacuee Board often headed by a Muslim with only a token representation for the Sikhs. A microscopic minority in Pakistan, Sikhs are known to suffer discrimination and violence by Islamist groups. The latter have thrice vandalised the statue of Maharaja Ranjit Singh in the Lahore Fort, paid for by a British-Sikh body.     

The Indian security establishment views the corridor involving movement and mixing of the civilian population as a security risk. Its intelligence has reports of militants being readied for infiltration in troubled Jammu and Kashmir and in election-bound Punjab. They also assess the diversion of cadres freed from Afghanistan where Pakistan promoted and favours the recent regime change. India cannot but take note of the covert support to the many Sikh groups in the West that advocate a separatist movement in Indian Punjab. Pakistani media recently reported a vote to demand ‘Khalistan’ cast by Sikhs in Britain.   

Although foreign relations do not win votes in either country, India-Pakistan bilateral relations, a huge historical baggage, do impact domestic politics. Hence the need to look at some developments. 

The Imran Khan government needs a respite and a diversion as it struggles to control a sliding economy and the Covid-19 pandemic. The government rammed through a record 33 bills at this week’s joint parliamentary session and the political opposition is bracing for a fight, again on the streets. The government’s oft-repeated claims of being “on the same page” with the all-powerful military have been dented recently. But the “same page” is evident on the Kartarpur congregation. 

Domestic politics

For the Modi government, the forthcoming round of assembly elections is crucial since it includes Punjab and the most populous Uttar Pradesh. It needs to retain Uttar Pradesh and well in Punjab, without its old ally, the Shiromani Akali Dal. The Akali Dal parted ways with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) over the Modi government’s now-repealed farm laws. 

Before the climbdown, the Modi government held eleven rounds of talks with the farmers but failed to win them over. Modi and some of his ministers called the agitation “anti-national”, singling out the Sikhs, alluding that their movement was being promoted by "Khalistani" separatists. 

Modi timed his latest withdrawal of the farm laws on November 19, the Guru Parab day, the 552nd anniversary of Guru Nanak. 

The move is aimed at pleasing the Sikh community, across Punjab, Haryana and in the foothills of the Himalayas in Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand. The farm laws had also angered the richer Hindu farmers. The promised withdrawal may lower the tensions and allow for a calmer election campaign. 

Beyond the India-Pakistan bilateral, there is a welcome fallout in the north-western region. Possibly, the latest wheat crop from the northern farmlands, despite the sustained farm protests, the political turmoil that entailed and the pandemic, will contribute to the 50,000 tonnes of food consignment India is keen to send to Afghanistan. Pakistan promotes the Taliban regime, without recognizing it formally, while India, like the rest of the world, does not recognize it. It is an UN-blessed humanitarian move. 

'Deep state' blessing?

On this score, the surprise has come from Imran Khan. He told acting Afghan Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi that his government would “favorably consider the request by Afghan brothers for transportation of wheat offered by India through Pakistan on exceptional basis”. India can now send the wheat to Afghanistan via the Wagah border in Pakistan. India suffered some years ago when biscuits sent on behalf of the UNICEF rotted on the Wagah border.

This was not an easy decision to make. Pakistan had been sitting on an Indian request for the overland transport of food aid to Afghanistan for weeks. The reluctance is rooted in Pakistan’s longstanding refusal to let India use its territory to move goods to Afghanistan and Central Asia. It does, however, permit Afghan goods to be transported to India. 

Imran Khan’s move, like the Kartarpur Corridor, is bound to have the blessings of the powerful Pakistan Army. And now the  unheralded visit of the Pakistani men's junior hockey team to participate in the Junior Hockey World Cup in Bhubaneswar may be the harbinger of a thaw in their frosty ties - the Indian Express called it "hockey diplomacy" - despite no overt diplomatic or political engagement.

Only time will tell how far and how long all this will last and what it augurs.  

(The writer is a veteran journalist and South Asia watcher. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at mahendraved07@gmail.com)