Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan welcomed Indian Sikh pilgrims at the launch of Kartarpur corridor but could not resist the temptation of stinging India over the Kashmir issue at the event that had attracted attention of global media.
Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan played a big diplomatic stroke at the inauguration of the Kartarpur corridor for Sikh pilgrims by raising the Kashmir issue at the ceremony and asking India to end all restrictions in the Valley imposed after New Delhi scrapped Jammu and Kashmir's special status. Also, former Punjab minister and cricketer-turned-politician Navjot Singh Sidhu stood out due to his lavish praise for Pakistan PM at the ceremony. However, Sidhu was not alone in appreciating Khan's efforts as Prime Minister Narendra Modi also applauded him.
That the corridor was inaugurated despite heightened discomfort in Islamabad over Article 370's removal in Kashmir, the Pulwama attack and Balakot air-strike is a miracle. Especially, considering that after the August 5 abrogation of Article 370 by the BJP-led government Pakistan downgraded diplomatic ties with India and expelled the Indian High Commissioner.
Pakistan PM's attempt to raise Kashmir at the Kartarpur event showed that Khan is desperately looking for opportunities to catch attention of foreign media on an issue which he unsuccessfully raised at the UN.
"What we are witnessing in Kashmir today, it is not a territorial issue any more. It has escalated to a humanitarian crisis. Unfortunately, things have gotten even worse for the people of Kashmir who are treated like animals, deprived of their basic human rights and besieged by a presence of nine lakh soldiers," Khan said, while welcoming Sikh pilgrims from India.
In an atmosphere of bonhomie, Khan's Kashmir barb exposed Islamabad's unfulfilled agenda of trying to internationalise the issue despite India's assertion that the abrogation of Article 370 is its "internal matter".
Khan said the sub-continent will only progress when the issue of Kashmir is resolved. "Kashmir issue's solution will lead to prosperity and mutual development of India and Pakistan. Kashmir issue has resulted in 70 years of hatred between the two countries. India must ensure justice to people of Kashmir," he said.
Sidhu's presence on the same platform and his praise for Khan brought him in the firing line of the BJP for attending the opening ceremony of the Kartarpur corridor as an invitee of Pakistan government. The BJP alleged that Sidhu sought to show Pakistan and Khan on a higher pedestal than India. The saffron party also hit out at Sidhu for his posturing and reported attempt to projected himself as a representative of 14 crore Sikhs.
The former Cabinet colleague of Chief Minister Amarinder Singh put in a lot of effort to emerge as the most prominent Indian face at the inauguration event that was also attended by former PM Manmohan Singh.
A video went viral in which Khan is purportedly seen inquiring about arrival of his invitee “Sidhu”. Khan is heard saying, “Usko aur hero banayege” (We will make Sidhu a bigger hero). In the same video, a Pakistani official is heard saying that if Sidhu isn’t allowed to come (to Pakistan) it would send a negative message for them (India).
The video, in a way, called the bluff of the Pakistani establishment to use Sidhu as a front for sending a message to the world that Islamabad is making the right moves to normalise relations with India. The way Pakistan has been giving special attention to Sidhu, there are reasons to believe that he might be used by Islamabad to cause confusion in Indian Punjab.
Sidhu, who is constantly involved in a power struggle with Chief Minister Amarinder Singh, seemed overjoyed at being the most prominent face from Indian Punjab at the holy corridor's inauguration. In his attempt to remain politically relevant in the state, Sidhu managed to be at the historic event as Khan's invitee. He repaid Khan's debt by declaring, “Imran Khan has made history.”
He said Khan has won hearts all over the world with his bold decision to open the corridor. He said Alexander the great had won the world with fear but Imran has won hearts all over the world with his magnanimous gesture.
Sidhu's all-out PR blitzkrieg is rooted in his current poor political standing in Punjab. Today, he has nothing to lose after recently resigning from Punjab Cabinet after friction with Chief Minister. In his continued efforts to overshadow Amarinder, he has tried to corner credit for the start of the Kartarpur corridor and portray that the corridor is a special “gift” to him from Pakistani Army Chief Qamar Bajwa. Earlier, Sidhu landed in trouble when he visited Pakistan to attend the oath-taking ceremony of Imran Khan and hugged Pakistani Army chief Bajwa. Sidhu came under a barrage of attacks both from the ruling BJP and also his fellow party leaders such as Punjab CM Amarinder Singh.
The 9-km Kartarpur corridor across river Ravi opened on November 9, just days before the 550th birth anniversary of Guru Nanak on November 12, amid a temporary thaw in the frosty relations between the neighbours. The corridor provides visa-free access to 5,000 Indian Sikh pilgrims daily, allowing them to travel to Gurudwara Darbar Sahib in Kartarpur, where Guru Nanak Dev spent the last 18 years of his life. The corridor links Gurdwara Darbar Sahib in Pakistan to Dera Baba Nanak shrine in Punjab’s Gurdaspur district.
On his part, Prime Minister Modi invoked the demolition of the Berlin wall and possibilities of collective development while flagging off the first batch of over 500 pilgrims to Kartarpur, saying it will be easy to pay obeisance at the Darbar Sahib gurdwara after the opening of the Kartarpur corridor. Thanking Khan, Modi said the opening of the historic corridor had brought immense happiness.
The suspicion over Pakistan's intention behind allowing Khalistani separatists to use the Kartarpur corridor as a platform for pursuing their agenda has dimmed chances for the goodwill for the project paving the way for similar co-operation on other issues. The practical irritants in Khan and Modi sharing a platform were visible on November 9 when both the PMs failed to come together to inaugurate the corridor and preferred cutting ribbons on their respective sides of the border to launch the corridor.
Critics of Pakistan's shrewd manoeuvres on Kartarpur claim that there is a possibility that in future Islamabad may shut the corridor or control the access to it to vent its diplomatic anger against New Delhi. The Pakistani establishment may close the corridor and blame Indian actions or decisions for the development.
For Sidhu, who has spoilt his relations with the BJP, angered the Congress brass by challenging Amarinder Singh's authority, the Kartarpur corridor offers an opportunity to remain in news before he firms up his next political move in the state where only the AAP appears to be a party with which he can plan his next innings in active politics.
The Modi government has done well to fulfil the long-standing demand for establishing the Kartarpur corridor, despite extreme hostility from Islamabad on the Kashmir issue. While the Indian government has refused to hold any bilateral talks with Pakistan till it stops exporting terror, New Delhi has tactfully prevented frosty ties between the two countries from impacting the fate of the religious corridor. The Modi government has also shown maturity in not letting security concerns paralyse decision making in a matter of public faith.
Observers believe Modi and his party can look forward to enjoying immense goodwill among Sikhs after the opening of Kartarpur corridor. The inauguration of the corridor has proved wrong naysayers on both sides of the border and given enough political fodder to parties in India that are waiting to convert this beacon of hope into a vote conversion machine. Hopefully, co-existence between the neighbours, scarred by partition, would get a boost in coming months with active involvement of the Modi government. But, this does not mean that the Indian government can afford to drop its guard against the Pakistan Army's possible hidden agenda behind allowing the Kartarpur corridor and sparking Khalistani sentiments.