India and Pakistan turn to religious diplomacy as peace talks stall

Historical rivals New Delhi and Islamabad have agreed to build a visa-free corridor that traverses their heavily militarized border and promises to ease bilateral tensions. But political realities may limit any real progress toward reconciliation.

Called the Kartarpur Corridor, the five-kilometer passageway connects Sikh shrines from the Indian city of Dera Baba Nanak to the town of Kartarpur in Pakistan, allowing Sikhs in both countries to travel to places of worship across the border without a visa.

The confidence-building measure is a milestone for the historically tense relationship — Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently compared the corridor with the fall of the Berlin Wall. It’s also a huge win for the regional Sikh community, which has long demanded the liberalization of travel to holy places. Sikhism is the fourth-largest religion in India, but in Muslim-majority Pakistan, it’s only practiced by a small segment of the population.

“Religious diplomacy — or using faith to bring people and nations together — has been very much part of Modi’s foreign policy in his outreach to the neighboring countries in the Subcontinent and beyond,” C. Raja Mohan, nonresident senior fellow at Carnegie India and a visiting professor at the National University of Singapore, said in a note.

Modi, who leads the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, tends to emphasize Hinduism as a uniting factor when he travels to Asian countries such as Nepal and Indonesia that have been influenced by the ancient religion. At home, however, the BJP’s right-wing rhetoric and policies have been linked to religious violence — mob killings and Hindu assaults on Muslims.

The Kartarpur Corridor, which has been praised by Beijing and Washington, promises to “give a new fillip to the strained relations between the two neighboring countries,” the All Parties Sikh Coordination Committee, a prominent Sikh organization based in India-administered Kashmir, said in a statement.

Construction on the corridor began last week, coinciding with India’s anniversary of the 2008 Mumbai attacks in which members of a Pakistan-based terror network known as Lashkar-e-Taiba carried out a series of shootings and bombings.

“If the Mumbai attacks represent the accumulated negative legacy of the [India-Pakistan] relationship, the surprising breakthrough on Kartarpur points to a potentially positive future,” Mohan said.

The border where Sikh pilgrims would cross is located at the Indian and Pakistani provinces of Punjab. Both states share the same name and have great demand for cross-border commercial cooperation and people-to-people contact, according to Mohan. “If there is one place ripe for quick advances in bilateral relations it is the Punjab,” he said.

But in the absence of dialogue, it’s hard to forecast any normalization of ties. New Delhi currently refuses to participate in any formal discussions with Islamabad amid terror concerns.

At last Wednesday’s launch of the Kartarpur Corridor, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan called for talks with Modi’s administration but, on that same day, India’s External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj dismissed the prospect.

“Bilateral dialogue and the Kartarpur Corridor are two different things,” she said at a press briefing. “Terror and talks can’t go together. The moment Pakistan stops terrorist activities in India, a dialogue can start.”

In December 2015, Modi became the first Indian prime minister to travel to Pakistan in over a decade as the neighbors launched a comprehensive bilateral dialogue. But that initiative was stalled following a terror attack on an Indian air base in January 2016, which Indian officials blamed on Pakistan-based group Jaish-e-Mohammed.

Khan has said his government is against radicals using Pakistani soil for terrorism.

Pakistan may be keen to embrace dialogue but “political realities in India are very different,” Stuti Bhatnagar, adjunct fellow at the University of Adelaide, wrote in a note published on The Lowy Institute this week.

Amid ongoing state elections and ahead of a general election in 2019, “it would not be in Modi’s electoral interests to enter serious negotiations with Pakistan,” she argued. “The ascendance of the Hindu nationalist narrative, which has become more pronounced since 2014, suggests that the electoral imperative for Modi is Pakistan-bashing rather than dialogue.”

It’s also unclear how the South Asian neighbors will govern the corridor or deal with the thorny issue of Sikh separatism.

One major obstacle is the process of visa-free travel. Security officials on both sides are likely to have demands that will make it tough for Sikh pilgrims to cross the border, according to Mohan, who pointed to the conflict-ridden region of Kashmir as an example.

“In Kashmir, we have seen how the agreement in the middle of the last decade to let Kashmiris travel across the Line of Control without passports and visas was marred by an onerous permit system,” he pointed out.

Indian authorities are also wary of the corridor being used by Sikh nationalists who seek to create an independent state known as Khalistan.

“The portent of things to come became crystal clear when a notorious Khalistani was given the front seat in the Corridor inauguration ceremony,” Sushant Sareen, senior fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, said in a note, referring to pro-Khalistan activist Gopal Singh Chawla.

New York-based separatist group Sikhs for Justice, for instance, has called the corridor “a bridge to Khalistan,” local media reported last week. That’s likely to keep Indian border forces on high alert, which raises concerns of clashes between separatists and authorities.

“It will be a while before any substantive progress is visible in India-Pakistan relations,” Bhatnagar concluded.

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