Kartarpur Diary: Pakistan for an image makeover
Imran Khan is not always lucid when speaking in public. He, many believe, is a gaffe machine. His messages are often garbled, if not contradictory. However, once in a while when he regains his form, he has a way with words. By comparing the situation of Kartarpur with that of Madina, he managed to reach out to his domestic audience as well.
When Federal Minister for Religious Affairs and Inter-faith Harmony, Maulana Noor-ul-Qadri came to speak at the inauguration, I was half-dreading that he would make a faux pas, but he surprised me with his astuteness and clarity of theology.
This correspondent was also surprised at the scene of Muslim Pakistanis-who were there in hundreds on the day of the inauguration-quietly following the orders of Sikh volunteers, whether it was about wearing a headscarf or leaving the shoes behind and walk without one in the sprawling campus. Clearly, Khan's message precipitated across Pakistan.Pak PM Imran Khan interacts with former Indian PM Dr Manmohan Singh during the inauguration ceremony of Kartarpur Sahib Corridor
And then there are other considerations too.
Khan appears mighty peeved by the image problem Pakistan has. While none of the countries in the region, including its mightier neighbour, is a beacon of religious tolerance, Pakistan's image is, particularly in tatters. Khan desperately wants to correct it.
While talking to the delegation of Indian journalists, several officials, including the Governor of Pakistani Punjab, Chaudhary Muhammad Sarwar, said that Pakistan is looking to promote tourism including religious tourism. And after the inauguration of Kartarpur Corridor, the focus will shift towards the restoration of scores of sites that are of religious importance to Hindus.
In fact, authorities insisted that the ball is already rolling. A roadmap to develop the sites of importance for Buddhists in Northern Pakistan where once Gandhara Civilisation flourished has already been approved. Kartarpur can act as a harbinger of all these
Slips between the cup and the lips
This is however not to say that everything will be seamless. For starters, there is the issue of manpower. Kartarpur region simply does not have enough Sikhs to seamlessly carry on with 'Sewa.' They need to be brought from other places in Pakistan. The inauguration day was chaotic, something that is not common at all at Sikhs' places of worship or veneration. However, things will iron out in days to come.
Then there is the small matter of ego clash between India and Pakistan. The way two sides fought over the issue of passport and facilitation fee was embarrassing. Both sides also made comments that could have been avoided. Dr Manmohan Singh and Punjab Chief Minister Captain Amrinder Singh, while praying at the Gurudwara, avoided the inauguration dais as dignitaries from Pakistan were expected to raise the Kashmir issue from the podium.
Instead, the Indian side was represented by the head of the Akal Takht. His speech was fine and measured. At one point, he pointed out that not only the Sikhs in general and Akal Takht, in particular, reached out to Kashmiri Muslims under duress following the abrogation of Article 370, they had also done the same when Kashmiri Pandits were hounded out of the Valley three decades ago.
However, the star of the show was Navjot Singh Sidhu. When his name was called out for the speech, the crowd broke into impromptu applause. The crowd was also not buying any of the talking points fed to the media by Modi Government. A lot was said on the imposition of $20 as facilitation fee by Pakistani authorities. However, this correspondent found not one yatri, I repeat not one yatri at Kartarpur who was whining about the fee.
I played a Devil's Advocate and pressed but was summarily ticked off by the crowd who found the fee reasonable considering the maintenance expenditure that the shrine will draw. Clearly hyperventilating anchors in the studios in Noida have few takers in Punjab and the Punjabi diaspora.
However, the difficult period will start now when cynical elements will try and create controversy at every opportunity. The key is to overcome the initial jitters. India and Pakistan successfully did this in the case of Delhi-Lahore Bus and Samjhauta Express and this can be replicated.
However, to think that situation between the two neighbours will normalise in the near future is being too optimistic. Several officials in Pakistan maintained both on and off the record that the opening of the Kartarpur Corridor was a promise made to the Sikh Community and Prime Minister Khan was very clear on keeping it. Insiders, in fact, said that at no point between the Balakot incident and the abrogation of Article 370 in J&K did this issue even appear on the table.
When I asked a senior Pakistani Diplomat who has served previously at the High Commission in Delhi as to what does he think of the charge by commentators in India that this is just a photo-op and nothing more, he gave me a wry smile and asked rhetorically, "I see Indian channels announcing Pakistan's economic demise every evening. And we have spent several hundreds of crores of Rupees to make this corridor a reality. If we are collapsing economically, then don't you think that several hundred Crores is a bit too much money for a photo-op?"
This question, though rhetorical, can only be answered by our studio-warriors in Noida.