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Can Kartarpur Corridor link India, Pakistan even after abrogation of Article 370?

Kartarpur Corridor project may survive even the deteriorating Indo-Pak ties, but technical negotiations will now be shrouded in suspicion.

, ET Bureau|
Aug 17, 2019, 11.30 PM IST
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Every morning, from November, 5,000 Indian pilgrims are supposed to cross the border with Pakistan to reach Kartarpur and return by the evening. In Punjab’s Dera Baba Nanak, the tehsil from where pilgrims will walk across the international border, the construction work of a `177 crore passenger terminal building is going on, say officials in the know.

The builder, Shapoorji Pallonji, is given a strict deadline — by October 31, it has to complete its 21,650 sq m building, with additional bus and car parking facilities plus food courts, to facilitate the pilgrimage to the Kartarpur Gurdwara ahead of Guru Nanak’s 550th birth anniversary which falls on November 12. The founder of Sikhism spent 18 years of his life at the shrine, which is now located in Narowal district of Pakistan’s Punjab province, making it a highly revered destination. The gurdwara, situated on the bank of the Ravi, can be seen from the international border.

At the time of writing this article, the Kartarpur corridor has survived the tensions between India and Pakistan, which had deteriorated after New Delhi abrogated Article 370 of the Indian Constitution, stripping away the special provisions given to Jammu and Kashmir seven decades ago. Islamabad reacted angrily, downgrading its diplomatic mission in Delhi and unilaterally suspending bus and train services as well as bilateral trade. India has expressed regret over the development.

Pakistan has, however, kept the Kartarpur project alive, making it the raison d’être for New Delhi and Islamabad to keep the diplomatic channels open. Its foreign minister, Shah Mahmood Qureshi, said last week that the project would continue.

LINGERING CONCERNS
Pakistan has not given a date for the next joint technical panel meeting
The Punjabi diaspora has put on hold work on the Pakistan side
India’s demand to bring back sick pilgrims, instead of their being treated in Pakistan’s hospitals, has not been met with
India demands a special purpose consulate in Kartarpur to cater to the needs of pilgrims in distress

There is, however, a big question mark over the project. Will it get the necessary fillip and be completed by the first week of November. Or, will it be kept in cold storage till normality returns? After all, Islamabad has been sitting on India’s proposal to have a joint technical meeting in mid-August. No new date has been proposed as yet.

Further, there are reports that the subcontinent’s Punjabi diaspora has put on hold its proposed investments on Pakistan side.

In a written reply to ET Magazine’s queries, Punjab Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh said he is hopeful of Islamabad taking cognisance of the religious sentiments of the Sikh community, ensuring the completion of the project by the 550th birth anniversary of Guru Nanak. “It is a historic occasion and I am sure Pakistan too realises the importance. The downgrading of diplomatic relations does not mean that we cannot talk on this vital subject of religious interest,” he said, adding that India must, however, take enough precautions on security issues. “Security concerns around the project do remain. India will have to take significant measures to ensure that the corridor is not used by elements antagonistic to its security interests,” the CM added.

From November last year, when the Indian cabinet gave its go-ahead, the project has been shrouded in suspicion. The fear on the Indian side is Pakistan might use the corridor to export terror and reignite the secessionist movement in Punjab. After the first technical meeting held at the site on March 19, India objected to Pakistan’s inclusion of separatist elements, particularly pro-Khalistan leader Gopal Singh Chawla, in a committee that would be involved in implementing the project. India even cancelled a bilateral meeting scheduled to be held at Wagah on April 2 for the same reason. Later, Chawla’s name was dropped from the panel.

In all likelihood, the level of suspicion will only increase hereon, as Pakistan has now taken a hardline position on Jammu and Kashmir. Also, in the protest march held outside the Indian High Commission in London on Thursday afternoon, pro-Khalistan flags were seen alongside Kashmiri ones. Further, Pakistan’s minister Fawad Ahmed Chaudhry’s appeal to Punjabis in the Indian Army to deny duty in Kashmir, something widely condemned in Punjab, can be construed as a preview to Pakistan’s agenda.

ET Magazine talked to three Indian officials connected to the Kartarpur project, including one who had attended joint technical committee meetings. It’s learnt that India has three major concerns.

First, there’s a fear that pilgrims could be brainwashed. India had insisted from day one that visitors must return on the same day, scuttling Pakistan’s plan to develop night-stay facilities in Kartarpur. Pakistan had conceded to India’s demand. India also held its ground that there would be no reverse flow of visitors, meaning, only those who enter from the Indian side would be allowed to return via the same route. Attari (India)-Wagah (Pakistan) will continue to be the only official border point through which people with valid documents will be able to enter India.

Second, India has expressed concerns about the possibility of pilgrims falling ill on the other side of the border. Here, too, there is a fear of possible indoctrination. New Delhi insists that patients must be brought back to India and not be treated in Pakistan’s hospitals.

Third, India has insisted that a special purpose consulate be set up in Kartarpur to address certain issues like a pilgrim being booked for petty offences like pickpocketing. Pakistan has not yet conceded to this demand.

Despite mounting tensions, there is a flicker of hope. After all, India had continued with the project even after the ghastly terrorist attack in Pulwama that killed 40 security personnel, followed by India’s bombing in Balakot, deep inside Pakistan’s territory, and subsequent air skirmishes — all in February.

Yet, land acquisition and the survey of the 4.2-km-long corridor on the Indian side up to the zero point of the border, designated as NH 354B, took place in February itself. Also, it was in February itself that India formally informed Pakistan about a 22.4 m difference in the alignment of the roads joining the zero point, according to documents available with the National Highways Authority of India (NHAI) as previewed by ET Magazine.

On March 13, just 14 days after the warplanes of the two nations engaged in a dogfight, an Indo-Pak delegation held deliberations at Attari, followed by a joint technical team’s visit to the site five days later.

Kartarpur survived post-Pulwama tensions. The question now is: can the corridor link the two countries even after the abrogation of Article 370?
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