When an opportunity comes knocking, unbidden, to one’s door, a wise person does not let it slip away. India has done this twice in the past 70 years: First when it shooed away American companies that came to Asia in search of a cheap labour platform to manufacture goods for the world market, and sent them on to southeast Asia.
It did this a second time when risk-averse advisors in both India and Pakistan succeeded in delaying the fleshing out of the Manmohan Singh-Pervez Musharraf framework agreement to end the Kashmir dispute signed in Delhi in 2005, till Musharraf lost his power to push it through the Pakistan national assembly in 2008.
The monumental silence with which Prime Minister Narendra Modi greeted Pakistan’s offer three months ago, the curt reassertion last week by foreign minister Sushma Swaraj that India would not attend the SAARC summit in Pakistan, and the Congress leadership’s tepid reaction to the initiative, has made it likely that we will send it away yet again.
The reason for the Modi government’s lack of enthusiasm is written in saffron across the sky: having wrecked the economy, failed to create any jobs and alienated each and every one of India’s neighbours, it has nothing left to fall back upon in its bid to win the 2019 general elections except the whipping up of paranoia towards Muslims, towards Pakistan and towards China.
But how does one explain the ambivalence of the Congress? For was it not Prime Minister Manmohan Singh who said in 2007 that his dream was to be able to have breakfast in Delhi, lunch in Islamabad and dinner in Kabul on the same day? Was it also not Singh who fashioned the Delhi Framework Agreement? If these initiatives were not popular, why did the Congress win the 2009 election with a near-majority of its own?
An opportunity with a difference
The opportunity created by Kartarpur Sahib must not be allowed to slip away, for it is born of radically different and deeply enduring roots. While previous peace initiatives originated in the corridors of Islamabad and New Delhi, this one has originated in a small village close to the India-Pakistan border. While previous negotiations have been carefully planned and orchestrated, this one is unplanned, disorderly and very largely spontaneous. Finally while all previous initiatives have started at the top of the social and political pyramid, this one has been born out a yearning among the poorest people on both sides of the Punjab border for peace and reconciliation.
The gurudwara at Kartarpur Sahib was established by Guru Nanak in 1522. It was there that he lived for 18 years, wrote the Guru Granth Sahib and, in all probability, died. It is therefore the second holiest shrine in the Sikh religion.
Partition forced the Sikhs of Punjab to one side of the newly created border, but left Kartarpur Sahib a bare three km on its other side. As a result, for 70 years Sikhs have been going in their hundreds of thousands to the closest point on the border, from where they can see the domes of the gurudwara, to pray.
The idea of a visa-free corridor from the border to Kartarpur Sahib was first mooted by Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee during his bus journey to Lahore in February 1999. Despite the Kargil War, the Nawaz Sharif government responded positively the next year, but the Pakistan Army, which was smarting from its defeat in Kargil, was in no mood for compromise. The spate of ISI-backed terrorist attacks on high value targets in India that followed and eventually triggered Operation Parakram, and the ISI’s reckless use of mujahideen in Kashmir put an end to any further discussion of the subject.
The possibility of a corridor was raised by Navjot Singh Sidhu three months ago when he attended Imran Khan’s swearing in as prime minister. Sidhu had gone in his personal capacity, as one of the three Indian cricketers whom Khan had invited. According to his account of what followed, not only did Khan leap at his suggestion but General Bajwa, the Pakistan Army chief, who was present at the function, immediately offered to build a barricaded corridor from the border to the gurudwara. This would prevent any actual contact between the pilgrims and people in the intervening area. It was this spontaneous offer that made Sidhu give Bajwa a Punjabi jhappi.
The Pakistan Army’s enthusiasm
Was the offer from Khan and Bajwa really a spur of the moment reaction to Sidhu’s suggestion? It might have been had only Khan made it, for he has been saying from the day of his inauguration, “If India takes one step forward, then we will take two steps forward toward friendship.”
But why should General Bajwa have gone that step further? A knee-jerk assessment would be that he saw it as a propaganda opportunity and, in case Delhi reacted negatively, a chance to rekindle disaffection in Punjab. But Khan made it crystal clear in his speech and press conference that he and the army are “all on one page” in wanting to mend ties with India.
Is such a radical change of heart in the Pakistan Army really possible? The answer, with suitable caveats, is ‘yes’, because seven decades after independence, its policy of jumping from the back of one circus-horse to another, while keeping its gaze locked firmly on Kashmir, has reached its pre-destined end – there are no more horses left to ride.
Thirty-five years ago, General Zia-ul-Haq felt that he could afford to adopt a forward policy because Pakistan’s GDP had been growing at 5-6% percent per annum for three decades; it was an indispensable ally of the US in the latter’s proxy war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, and therefore had no dearth of foreign exchange to buy military toys.
Today’s Pakistan could not be more different. It has been chastened by its failure to spark secession in Punjab and Kashmir: Despite every pain that India has inflicted on Kashmir, a 2009 Chatham House poll in the Valley showed that while a majority of its people wanted a radical change in Kashmir’s relationship with India, only 2.5% to 7.5% wanted to join Pakistan.
Not only has it lost the patronage of the US, but the Donald Trump administration, and most of the world, considers Pakistan to be a dangerous and unpredictable breeding ground for terrorists, and the principal threat to Pax Americana in Afghanistan.
Islamabad has attempted to replace the US with China and Saudi Arabia as its political, military and economic sponsors, but China has been far less tolerant towards its use of terrorism to realise its regional aspirations than Washington was three decades ago.
This is because, contrary to the prevailing impression in India, Beijing’s huge investment in the Karakoram-Gwadar transit corridor is, like other projects of its Belt-Road Initiative, more defensive than offensive. It is primarily intended to create one of several backdoors for its trade with Asia, Europe and Africa to pass through in case the US and its allies decide to block the sea lanes through which most of its imports and exports currently pass.
Its fear of the US’s naval power is understandable, because its dependence upon trade for economic growth is the highest for a large industrial economy that the world has ever known. China’s dependence on trade to generate employment is even greater. So from the early days of its investment in Pakistan, Beijing has been putting a quiet but unrelenting pressure on Pakistan to crack down on terrorist groups and maintain peace with India, especially in the Karakoram region.
Till the end of February this pressure was private and bilateral. Then, on February 23, China stopped shielding Pakistan and agreed to put it on the “grey list” of the Financial Action Task Force, a global body created to monitor the financing of terrorist organisations all over the world. Pakistan was put on the list in June. It now has till June 30, 2019 year to show that it has taken decisive action against organisations in the country that are sponsoring terrorist activities.
This withdrawal of support could not have come at a worse time for Pakistan, for it is facing its worst economic crisis in a decade. In 2017-18, it recorded a $19 billion balance of payments deficit, amounting to 5.7% of its GDP. The Pakistani rupee has depreciated by 20% in less than a year and its foreign exchange reserves have fallen to under $10 billion.
Till now, Islamabad has relied upon loans from China and Saudi Arabia to remain solvent, but Saudi Arabia too agreed to put Pakistan on the greylist last February. Pakistan has therefore been left with no option but to go to the International Monetary Fund for another – its 13th – bailout. That loan will now almost certainly come with conditionalities that will cross the border between economics and politics.
Finally, the Pakistan Army has been locked in a civil war for more than a decade. It has managed to establish a semblance of peace in the tribal areas by denuding its Indian border of troops. But insurgency and sectarian killings have continued to grow in other parts of the country. It would be surprising indeed if it had not begun to look for a way out of the morass.
To the army high command too, therefore, peace with India must have begun to look like the silver bullet that can end most of its miseries. The is almost certainly why General Bajwa seized the olive branch that Sidhu innocently extended at Khan’s swearing-in with such alacrity.
What Pakistan has essentially done at Kartarpur, therefore, is to ask for India’s help in ending its own impossible predicament. Peace with India will remove the very ground on which much of the Islamist extremism which has spawned terrorism feeds in Pakistan. Since these groups gain legitimacy by posing as the champions of the oppressed in Kashmir, finding a solution to the dispute that Islamabad can present to its own people as a fulfilment of its commitment to them is the best way forward.
It would therefore be folly for India not to seize the opening that Kartarpur Sahib has created to end the Cain versus Abel conflict that has held both countries back, while the rest of Asia has raced ahead. An immediate cease fire along the Line of Control in Kashmir, the resumption of talks, involving Kashmiri leaders in the deliberations, and an agreement to review the Manmohan-Musharraf framework agreement will get the ball rolling towards peace.
Prem Shankar Jha is a Delhi-based journalist and writer.
Published in arrangement with The Wire