Can the Re-opening of the Kartarpur Corridor Lead to Resumption of India-Pakistan Bilateral Trade?

By Prof. Tridivesh Singh Maini

The Kartarpur Religious Corridor was re-opened after a period of 20 months. While the wish of pilgrims to pay obeisance at Darbar Sahib, Narowal has been fulfilled, the corridor also has the potential to pave the way for closer linkages in a number of spheres — especially religious tourism, connectivity and trade. There is a growing clamour in Indian Punjab for resumption of bilateral trade with Pakistan — which had been disrupted in 2019. In Pakistan too there are lobbies which have been pushing for revival of bilateral trade with India given that the former is importing commodities at much higher prices from other countries. Earlier this year, the Pakistan government had given clearance for the import of sugar and textiles from India, but this decision was reversed due to political pressure. In a changing economic and geo-political context, both New Delhi and Islamabad need to think out of the box, both the Punjabs have a very important role to play in promoting economic links and people to people ties. While it is always important to have realistic expectations in the context of India-Pakistan relations, it is important not to be excessively pessimistic. The Kartarpur corridor has been dubbed as a corridor of peace, potential and prosperity and its reopening is an important step which could open up many vistas.

Introduction

The Kartarpur Religious Corridor — which connects two historic shrines, Dera Baba Nanak shrine in Gurdaspur – India with Darbar Sahib – Kartarpur, Pakistan — was re-opened on November 18, 2021 after a period of 20 months. The corridor had been closed in March 2020 in view of the covid19 pandemic. 

November 18 also happened to be the eve of the founder of the Sikh faith, Guru Nanak’s 552 birth anniversary (November 19, 2021). The re-opening of the corridor is significant for a multitude of reasons. 

The corridor which was inaugurated in November 2019 (the 550th birth anniversary year of Guru Nanak) enables Sikhs and devotees belonging to other communities, to pay obeisance at Darbar Sahib, Kartarpur. The town of Kartarpur was established by Guru Nanak. The founder of the Sikh faith spent the last few years of his life along with his followers at Kartarpur. During this period, Guru Nanak gave practical shape to his spiritual beliefs and his vision for a socially inclusive society, while laying immense emphasis on hard work and honesty. 

Can the Kartarpur Corridor pave the way for other openings? 

While it is tough to forecast the trajectory of the India-Pakistan relationship. The corridor certainly has  the potential to give a strong boost to people-people linkages. Apart from giving a fillip to interaction between ordinary citizens it has also provided an opportunity to reunite separated families and friends who have not met each other since 1947. The corridor can also give a boost to religious tourism and economic linkages between both countries in general and the two Punjabs in particular. This is a point which was made during the opening of the corridor in 2019, and reiterated not just by politicians from Indian Punjab, but are also clearly visible from the warmth which pilgrims from the Indian side experience when they visit Kartarpur to pay obeisance. 

Religious Tourism

In the past two years, in spite of tensions between India and Pakistan some steps have been taken to give a boost to religious tourism and the Pakistan government has handed over religious shrines of Sikhs and Hindus, not just in Punjab but also Balochistan, back to the respective communities. Even before the opening of the 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. There has also been an emphasis on renovating shrines which represent the common heritage of both Punjabs.

Economic relations between both countries have suffered in the past two years. Trade ties had been suspended by Pakistan in the aftermath of the revocation of Article 370). 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 other 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 (Pakistan) -Attari (India) 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’. Channi’s views were echoed by Punjab Congress Chief, Navjot Singh Sidhu who said:

‘There is 37 billion dollar worth of trade which can be done by the two countries along with Central Asian republics. I want this to happen for the prosperity of the two countries and for three crore Punjabis’.

In the past, bilateral trade between India and Pakistan has been an important issue in Punjab (India), especially during state and national elections, with all political parties in the state supporting bilateral trade and even batting for opening of more border crossings. Ever since the snapping of trade ties in 2019, activists, traders and farmers in Indian Punjab have been pushing for revival of bilateral trade through Wagah-Attari, though political parties have not been as vocal as they were in the past.

For Pakistan, it also makes sense for resumption of bilateral trade and importing essential commodities from India – at lower prices via the Wagah-Attari land crossing. It remains to be seen whether economic benefits will take precedence over pressure from certain lobbies opposed to economic relations.

If one were to look beyond the bilateral relationship, Pakistan also gave the go ahead to Indian humanitarian assistance (consisting of 50,000 tonnes of wheat and medicines) for Afghanistan to transit through Wagah. While Pakistan said that permission to the Indian consignment was done on an exceptional basis, it remains to be seen if this development can force a rethink with regard to the zero-sum approach towards regional connectivity. 

Conclusion

The Kartarpur Corridor provides an opportunity not just to reduce tensions between both countries, but to explore the possible synergies in trade and people to people contact especially between both Punjabs. The corridor has been dubbed as not just a corridor of peace, but also one of boundless opportunities for both Punjabs. 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.

Tridivesh Singh Maini is Assistant Professor, Jindal School of International Affairs, OP Jindal Global University, Sonepat, Haryana.

Image credits: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-50342319

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