The costly bromance

14 Nov 2019


The writer is an author and historian.
The writer is an author and historian.

THE friendship between two Pakistani and Indian cricketers-turned-politicians must be the costliest bromance in history.

A year ago, at his swearing-in, Prime Minister Imran Khan responded to a request by his friend ex-minister Navjot Singh Sidhu to open a Kartarpur corridor and enable Indian yatrees access to the original site where Guru Nanak spent his final years. It was not a new idea. Twenty years earlier, prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee discussed this possibility with his counterpart Nawaz Sharif in Lahore.

Last year, two foundation stones were laid separately at either end of the proposed corridor. Both governments have competed since to show how each can outdo the other in courting the Sikh community. Indians claim they will spend Indian rupees 100 crore; Pakistanis have committed Pakistani rupees 160 crores to establish facilities on either side of the Ravi river. The sources of funding are undisclosed. Until the rich Sikh diaspora outside India foots the bill, the Pakistani cost is being borne by the government through the Frontier Works Organisation.

The gurdwara in Pakistan’s Kartarpur was closed from 1947 until 2000. Indian pilgrims could view it across the river using binoculars from an elevated platform. Today, provision has been made for up to 5,000 pilgrims from India to travel to Pakistan visa-free daily. Indian officialdom will control the flow, which explains why, on its first day, only 562 Indians used the corridor, and even less in the days thereafter.

The pilgrims couldn’t have been disappointed with what they saw.

The 5,000 or so foreign yatrees who came directly could not have been disappointed with what they saw. The Pakistan FWO had performed a miracle, constructing within one year a pristine white complex. At its epicentre stands a gurdwara where the holy Guru Granth would be displayed. Surrounding it, like most Sikh places of worship, is a square colonnade containing facilities and a langar khana (communal commissary) to continue the tradition of free food instituted by Guru Nanak’s chosen successor Guru Angad. When the two phases of the project are completed, it will cover an area larger than Harmandir Sahib in Amritsar.

The inaugural programme on Nov 9 became a test of faith. Most invitees had to sit in the open, under a blazing sun, on marble floors, waiting for the VIP guests to arrive. Distinctive passes had been issued with different colours. These paled into irrelevance when, in an unconscious display of the egalitarianism Guru Nanak had preached, anyone who was no one could enter the guarded complex without check.

Considering VIPs are masters of their own punctuality, many sweltering in the sun wondered why Prime Minister Imran Khan should have arrived two hours late. The Indian VIPs, having attended the inauguration by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the Indian source of the corridor, waited until they had received confirmation that Imran Khan’s helicopter had landed before moving to zero point.

Mr Modi’s absence was studied and deliberate. He still smarts from Imran Khan’s refusal to allow him to overfly Pakistan. Mr Modi, when inaugurating the Indian end, had drawn an unfortunate analogy with the Berlin Wall. Like East German leaders, Mr Modi preferred to remain on his darker side of the divide.

Foreign minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi’s elongated rhetoric had to be cut short for the star of the day — Navjot Singh Sidhu. He is a consummate performer who knows his audience. He entertained them by reciting his speech in Punjabi rhyming slang.

Imran Khan spoke in Urdu without notes and therefore without structure. He confessed that he had not heard of Kartarpur until a year ago. He then offered an olive branch of peace to Mr Modi. From it hung the hand grenade of a condition that, unless the Jammu & Kashmir question was settled, there could be no meaningful dialogue with India.

Understandably, the Indian delegation including Pun­jab Chief Minister Capt Amarinder Singh and former prime minister Dr Manmohan Singh remained silent. For Dr Manmohan Singh, this brief yatra allowed him to step on the soil that saw his birth at Gah. It was also to mourn silently the still-born Satvinder Lambah-Tariq Aziz talks he could not bring to life.

Imran Khan then unveiled a massive replica of a kirpan. The huge balloons that held its covering in place refused to soar into the cloudless sky, hovering above the dais like inflated optimism over the reality of fractious Pakistan-India relations.

The VIPs departed. They left behind the cost of their extravagance. “How could a bankrupt treasury,” someone asked, “divert Rs160 crores towards the Kartarpur Corridor which few Pakistanis will ever see or use?” That money could have benefited 16 universities, 1,600 colleges, 160,000 hospitals, and 16 million schools.

Might it not have been cheaper for Imran Khan to have given a cricket bat to Sidhu instead? It costs only Rs1,600.

The writer is an author and historian.

Published in Dawn, November 14th, 2019