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Border Openings Could Signal an Indian-Pakistani Thaw

Relaxing restrictions on the Punjab border could lead to a bigger shift as both sides recalibrate relations.

By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and the director of the National University of Singapore’s Institute of South Asian Studies.
Indian border guards patrol the Indian-Pakistani border.
Indian border guards patrol the Indian-Pakistani border in Jammu and Kashmir, India, on Aug. 14. Feature China/Barcroft Media via Getty Images

Amid the unending bad news on Indian-Pakistani relations, there is finally something to cheer this week. It comes from moves to open—if only a wee bit—the tightly controlled and heavily guarded land border between the two countries. These steps are about easing the movement of people and goods across the border in Punjab, a single geographic and cultural region that was violently split between India and Pakistan during Partition of India in 1947.

Uncharacteristic goodwill between the two governments is probably not the source of change. But political shifts on both sides seem to be aligning with a possible thaw in relations. Whatever the motivation, these steps—small and one-off for now—suggest a path to a less gloomy and more hopeful phase in bilateral relations. That said, any optimism must be heavily discounted when it comes the troubled ties between India and Pakistan.

Last week, Pakistan gave visas to 3,000 Indian pilgrims to visit various Sikh shrines on the Pakistani side of the border. Islamabad had earlier turned down these requests. In a separate move, India reopened the so-called Kartarpur corridor across the Punjabi border.

Amid the unending bad news on Indian-Pakistani relations, there is finally something to cheer this week. It comes from moves to open—if only a wee bit—the tightly controlled and heavily guarded land border between the two countries. These steps are about easing the movement of people and goods across the border in Punjab, a single geographic and cultural region that was violently split between India and Pakistan during Partition of India in 1947.

Uncharacteristic goodwill between the two governments is probably not the source of change. But political shifts on both sides seem to be aligning with a possible thaw in relations. Whatever the motivation, these steps—small and one-off for now—suggest a path to a less gloomy and more hopeful phase in bilateral relations. That said, any optimism must be heavily discounted when it comes the troubled ties between India and Pakistan.

Last week, Pakistan gave visas to 3,000 Indian pilgrims to visit various Sikh shrines on the Pakistani side of the border. Islamabad had earlier turned down these requests. In a separate move, India reopened the so-called Kartarpur corridor across the Punjabi border.

The corridor allows Indian pilgrims to travel, without visas, almost 3 miles from the border into Pakistan to worship at the birthplace of Guru Nanak, who founded the Sikh religion six centuries ago. The corridor was set up in late 2019 after some complex negotiations between New Delhi and Islamabad. It was shut down in early 2020 as the COVID-19 pandemic hit the subcontinent.

The second—and perhaps more significant—surprise was when Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan told acting Afghan Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi that his government will “favorably consider the request by Afghan brothers for transportation of wheat offered by India through Pakistan on exceptional basis.” This week, an Afghan Commerce Ministry spokesperson in Kabul told the press that “the issue has now been resolved, and India can now send the wheat to Afghanistan via the Wagah border in Pakistan.”

This was not an easy decision to make; Pakistan had been sitting on an Indian request for overland transport of food aid to Afghanistan for weeks. The reluctance is rooted in Pakistan’s longstanding refusal to let India use its territory for moving goods to Afghanistan and Central Asia. It does, however, permit Afghan goods to be transported to India.

Skeptics, however, point to obstacles that could yet impede these shipments. Even if Pakistan is willing to let the wheat go through to Afghanistan, logistical arrangements could be quite demanding at a border that has long been designed to discourage trade and travel.

Despite many requests over the last two decades by successive U.S. administrations and Afghan governments, Pakistan rejected all proposals for giving India transit access. But where other Afghan governments failed, the Taliban appear to have succeeded in persuading Pakistan to change its policy. Pakistan made clear it was acceding to the Afghan request, not the Indian appeal, and only on an “exceptional basis.”

If pressure from the Taliban was a new factor, 2022 elections in the Indian part of Punjab—the province of the same name—appears to be the trigger for change in New Delhi. All major parties, including Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, have called for a reopening of the Kartarpur corridor. The traditional celebration of Guru Nanak’s birthday this Friday added to the urgency.

Although the demand for easy access to Nanak’s birthplace has been as old as the Partition of India, the issue has been caught up in the persistent conflict between India and Pakistan. Then-Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee proposed the corridor in 1999, but it was hard to get it going.

In 2018, the corridor proposal was revived by Pakistani Army Chief Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa. Khan, who had just been elected prime minister, was enthusiastic in his support. The 550th birth anniversary celebrations of Nanak in 2019 provided the political context. In India, the offer was viewed with much suspicion given Pakistan’s long record of supporting militant Sikh groups fighting for Punjab’s secession from India.

Modi, recognizing the initiative’s enormous importance for India’s Sikhs, moved quickly to accept the corridor proposal and set the terms of building it. It was implemented in November 2019, and despite intensified tensions over Kashmir, the Kartarpur corridor endured until the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Bajwa seems to have been the driving force behind other recent attempts to de-escalate relations with India. He blessed a back-channel engagement that produced a surprising cease-fire agreement in Kashmir earlier this year. The military cease-fire was backed by a political commitment to “address each other’s core issues and concerns which have propensity to disturb peace and lead to violence.” Indeed, expectations that the two sides will take additional steps to engage each other’s “core issues”—cross-border terrorism for India and Kashmir for Pakistan—quickly rose.

Optimism about Indian-Pakistani relations were boosted by two other developments. In a major speech in March, Bajwa called for reorienting Pakistan’s foreign policy away from geopolitics and toward geoeconomics. He emphasized the importance of good neighborly relations with Afghanistan and India. A few weeks later, Pakistan loosened the ban on trade, announcing it would import sugar and cotton from India, which offers competitive prices and easy access. But Khan quickly reversed the decision, and a familiar chill seemed to descend on relations between the two countries once again.

Since then, there has been much speculation about differences between Bajwa and Khan over India policy and foreign policy more generally. While Bajwa seemed to be exploring a way out of the Kashmir stalemate with India, Khan’s demands of Modi have been maximalist—a complete reversal of India’s 2019 constitutional amendment that changed the political status of Kashmir within India.

Interestingly, the differences between Bajwa and Khan seem to have flipped the traditional political divide in Pakistan—normally, military hard-liners held back civilian leaders attempting to engage India. However, today it’s the other way around. Now, Bajwa seems more open than Khan to a positive relationship with India as he looks at Pakistan’s long-term challenges.

This summer, India returned to Pakistan’s back burner as the Afghan situation evolved rapidly. Meanwhile, tensions between Bajwa and Khan escalated over the appointment of a new chief for Pakistan’s powerful intelligence agency: the Inter-Services Intelligence. Bajwa won that round—and his nominee, Lt. Gen. Nadeem Anjum, is set to take charge at the end of this week.

Will that victory over Khan allow Bajwa to regain the policy initiative on India as well? Can he overrule Khan’s veto and revive the Bajwa doctrine on calming tensions? On the Indian side, Modi has enough political capital to overcome any opposition to peace moves with Pakistan. He can easily pick up the threads from the cease-fire and trade initiatives earlier this year.

For Bajwa, a battered economy and deepening difficulties with domestic militant groups should make even a brief respite in the conflict with India welcome. For Modi, the steady escalation of the border crisis with China that began in early 2020 should make a pause in tensions with Pakistan quite attractive. Even if optimism must be kept in check, there is no denying that the opening of the Punjabi frontier suggests new possibilities for a further easing of Indian-Pakistani relations.

C. Raja Mohan is a columnist at Foreign Policy, the director of the National University of Singapore’s Institute of South Asian Studies, and a former member of India’s National Security Advisory Board. Twitter: @MohanCRaja

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