28 November 2018 will be recorded in the annals of history as the crucial step taken by the Pakistani and Indian governments to reconnect the historical Punjab, which in 1947 witnessed unprecedented bloodshed, forced migration and the overall debasement of humanity until ethnic (religious) cleansing was achieved on both sides of the divided Punjab. Guru Nanak, the founder of the Sikh faith, spent the last phase of his life in Kartarpur but the partition left the Sikh community in India.
I spent twelve years researching what happened, how and why in the Punjab: The Punjab Bloodied, Partitioned and Cleannsed (2012, 2014, 2017) is based on those findings.The process of healing and repairing the harm done then, has begun now.
Prime Minister Imran Khan has achieved what others could not because history creates situations one has to dare to seize, and he has done that. His speech was that of a visionary. Saying that he hopes to see Pakistan and India live as great neighbours, drawing infinite material and spiritual advantage out of it was something many others and I have been pleading for a long time. Now such a hope has been expressed at the highest levels of state authority.
Let me pay tribute to Mian Nawaz Sharif who too tried the same in 1999. On that occasion he was let down by his generals. This time it seems the situation is different or, so I would like to believe; and despite my rationalism am willing to raise my hands in prayer to wish him success.
In my book, Pakistan: The Garrison State (2013), I have shown that no responsible civil or military Pakistani government can ignore the fact that Pakistan is a security nightmare with a very long vulnerable international border. Pakistan’s security must be ensured in all peace deals with India and other powers and, therefore, it is imperative that the Pakistan military is on board in such a deal.
From the Indian side Shri Navjot Singh Sidhu stands out as a man of great courage, vision and substance. I have rarely seen and heard an individual who can speak so well and so persuasively. His ability to refer to Sufi and Guru teachings with a radiant smile on his face was a manifestation of scholarly insight and practical wisdom. I hope history gives him many opportunities to serve humanity.
Union Minister Harsimrat Kaur Badal of the BJP spoke with emotions and feelings which only a woman can do and win the hearts of men of stone. She conveyed with exquisite grace the Sikh community’s innermost feelings of fulfilment and gratitude to Imran Khan for making possible for Sikhs to visit easily one of their holiest shrines. Punjab Governor Chaudhary Sarwar was at his best and expressed great optimism about peace and reconciliation among Punjabis. What pleased me most was that for the first time Pakistani leaders were not ashamed to speak and express themselves in Punjabi. That is another milestone.
Reconciliation between Punjabis is a necessary but not sufficient for lasting peace to be established between Pakistan and India. Peace can be achieved and consolidated only at the highest levels of state power and policy.
Both Sidhu and Madam Badal underlined that Prime Minister Modi and his government looked upon favourably at the laying of the foundation of the corridor between Kartarpur Sahib in Narowal district on the Pakistani side and Dera Babak Nanak across the Ravi in the Indian Gurdaspur district. However, we need to wait until the Indian electorate has given a verdict in 2019 as to who is to rule over them for the next five years. Only then the position of the Indian government on rapprochement with Pakistan will become clear. Right now, Pakistan has the initiative while in India ambivalence seems to prevail on relations with Pakistan.
Apart from these three major players, the Pakistan and Indian governments and the Sikh community represented by a large contingent of yaatris (devotees), a fourth group was also visibly animated by the Kartarpur corridor initiative — the Khalistani Sikhs who aspire to separate statehood or some other formula which would take out the Indian Punjab from the Indian Union.
Here too, I have original research on this subject. In my book, State, Nation and Ethnicity in Contemporary South Asia (1996, 1998) I examined in a comparative perspective several separatist movements of the 1970s — 1990s which emerged in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka.
The Khalistan idea and demand existed in 1947 but the British overruled it. Equally, Sir Khizr Hayat Khan Tiwana had proposed that a united Punjab be declared the third dominion besides Pakistan and India. His idea was also dismissed by the British. In the final settlement the British agreed to only two dominions: Pakistan and India. At that point the Sikh leaders preferred union with India.
I argued in that book that the international border laid down at the time of the transfer of power in 1947 is under international law irrevocable. The right of self-determination upheld in the United Nations Charter (1945) was presumed to be exercised by natives against colonial rulers. Once power was transferred to natives its application became practically redundant. Consequently, invoking the right of self-determination on behalf of disgruntled groups and political movements to break out of existing states has no backing of the international system.
Secessionist movement can succeed only ifsome great or superpower intervenes to help the secessionists. East Pakistan seceded to become Bangladesh because the Bengalis had turned against Pakistan and India intervened to help them secede. I don’t think that case is replicable anywhere now in the subcontinent. The Khalistanis could not muster effective international support in the 1980s. I don’t think the situation has changed to their advantage now; if at all the contrary is truer.
I have researched in the Indian East Punjab and Haryana during 2003-2005. Indian Sikhs are more prosperous and influential than many other communities in India, including especially states where Hindus predominate. Indian Muslims and other depressed classes and castes are far less advanced than Indian Sikhs. Therefore, grounds such as deprivation and marginalization which are at the core of separatist movements’ litany do not exist objectively on which the Khalistanis can build a strong moral case.
Of course, the storming of the Golden Temple and the 1984 carnage of Sikhs in Delhi are a scar on Indian democracy. On the other hand, Khalistani extremists exterminated dissenting Sikhs and Hindusin the thousands. Theories that a hidden agenda to create Khalistan is being pursued by the Pakistani deep state make no sense to me. If true, I must say that it would be a colossal blunder which Pakistan must avoid.
While the Kartarpur corridor will be a very great service to the Sikhs and their spiritual yearnings, this overpopulated region afflicted by abject poverty, illiteracy, religious and caste oppression and violence, water shortage, environmental degradation requires concrete measures to alleviate the chronic suffering of our people. That is where both Pakistan and India need to concentrate their attention and invest their resources. It is time to bury the hatchet and make this region a loving-cup instead.
This article by Pakistani historian and political scientist Ishtiaq Ahmed was first published in Daily Times, Lahore, on 4 Dec 2018.