Kartarpur Corridor: Undoing Historical Wrong

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by Rushali Saha 1 September 2019

The recent statement by Pakistan that it is committed to complete the Kartarpur Corridor despite tense ties with India is a welcome move. Although it might be intended to paint India’s international image as the aggressor and Pakistan as the patron of peace in the region, India should not fall in this trap. The Kartarpur corridor between India and Pakistan presents an opportunity to undo part of a historical error and mitigate some lingering ethnoreligious concerns of the Partition by reversing a historically errant division of the Radcliffe Line.

Partition divided the subcontinent into religious lines and the resulting social dislocation and ethnocultural divide still haunt families on either side. A closer look at the process in which the Indo-Pakistan boundary was drawn, reveals how hasty and ill-planned the exercise was, and how its implications are felt strongly even today. Lucy Chester in her book Borders and Conflict in South Asia: The Radcliffe Boundary Commission and the Partition of Punjab, asserts that ‘it was not the location of the Radcliffe boundary but the flawed process of Partition that caused the terrible violence of 1947.’

Historical records reveal that British officials thought that a proper transfer of power would take around five years but later hastily decided to shrink the exit timeline. British India was to be split into two independent nations, a Muslim majority Pakistan and a Hindu majority but officially secular India. To do the actual drawing of the border, the British bought a lawyer from London, Sir Cyril Radcliffe, who had never been to India, or anywhere in Asia and was not familiar with the demographics of the region. Several accounts reveal how this limitation impinged on the British imperial decline. Radcliffe relied excessively on maps and census data, particularly those who showed the religious identity of people in India, with little understanding about Indian political ethos. British India had numerous religions, ethnicity, and overlapping cultural practices, making strict cartographic demarcation, especially on those lines, a potentially disruptive exercise.

To determine the boundary, Radcliffe looked at individual districts, and put any district that had a Muslim population into Pakistan while Hindu and Sikh majority districts stayed within India. He just had five weeks to carry out this massive exercise. Records show that Radcliffe had burnt all his papers and refused to accept any fee for his work, and left India on the Independence day, never to set foot in the country again.

The boundary ultimately formed as a source of confusion, injustice, and violence that lives on. Arguably, one of the worst affected provinces was Punjab. The Partition of Punjab remains as a living testament to the perils of a border determined on religious grounds. In the final award, three tehsils of Gurdaspur district which had Muslim majority population but were contiguous to Pakistan were given to India while Shakargarh tehsil in the Narowal district was given to Pakistan. In this district of Pakistan, lies the Sikh shrine, Gurdwara Kartarpur Sahib, which is believed to be the final resting place of Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism. The Kartarpur corridor between India and Pakistan seeks to partly undo a historical blunder by connecting Dera Baba Nanak in India with Kartapur Sahib in Pakistan.

Persistently troubled relations with Pakistan have prevented Sikhs from accessing one of their holiest shrines in Pakistan. This site had remained mostly closed to the public, especially since 1980 were when it was linked to the Khalistan movement, leaving Indian pilgrims only with a darshan sthal to catch a glimpse of the gurudwara on the other side through binoculars. In this historically hastened and flawed drawing of boundaries by Radcliffe, the Sikhs on either side of the line have suffered for over 70 years. It is time that the Corridor becomes functional and conjoins the syncretic religious heritage which the gurdwaras on either side symbolically represent.

As such, the proposed Kartarpur Corridor stands for rectification of historical wrongs. The visa-free Corridor would allow 5,000 pilgrims to visit the gurudwara per day throughout the year, and pilgrims would be allowed to travel as individuals, in groups and also on foot. It is easy to dismiss the initiative in view of the historically strained relationship with Pakistan, especially in view of the current environment of diplomatic offensives from Pakistan. However, the larger significance of Kartarpur lies in its ability to foster the exchange of religious faith which has been historically prevented by the Radcliffe line. For a community which witnessed division of its own people by an imposed cartographic reorientation, Kartarpur is more than just another project and establishes a link of faith.

The border constructed by a British lawyer has held the combined Indo-Pak Sikh heritage hostage for far too long. Broadly, this step also reflects a strategic use religious diplomacy, or using faith to bring people and nations together has been a part of this government’s foreign policy outreach to the neighbouring countries in the subcontinent and beyond. This step is likely to have larger repercussions for regional peace in the subcontinent. It is unlikely that the Corridor will be a breakthrough in India-Pakistan relations; neither will it solve the complex Kashmir imbroglio, but it is likely to give peace a chance. Kartarpur corridor represents the demands of millions of Sikhs for over twenty years now and is probably the only light at the end of the tunnel of CBMs amidst an unprecedented hostility and plummeting of relations between New Delhi and Islamabad.