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Above: Kartarpur Sahib gurdwara in Pakistan/Courtesy: YouTube

After the Kartarpur shrine in Pakistan was opened to Indian pilgrims, the Punjab government has proposed a land swap up to four kilometres near the shrine by both countries

By Vipin Pubby in Chandigarh

Ever since Punjab minister Navjot Singh Sidhu’s visit to Pakistan and his much talked about hug with Pakistan Army chief Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa after the latter told him about the proposal to open the Gurdwara Kartarpur Sahib corridor for Sikh pilgrims, political parties in the state have been in a quandary.

There have been several contradictions in their stand over the issue and blatant attempts to take credit while pulling others down. Punjab Chief Minister Capt Amarinder Singh, not known to be very fond of Sidhu, criticised the latter’s spontaneous hug with Gen Bajwa. And while he welcomed the move to open a corridor for Sikh pilgrims to one of the holiest shrines, he also described it as an ISI-sponsored conspiracy to revive militancy in Punjab. He was the one who had given permission to his ministerial colleague to visit Pakistan. The move also had the approval of the centre.

Leaders of the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) led by the Badals, sworn political opponents of Sidhu, went hammer and tongs against him and accused him of being a “traitor”. Yet, Union minister Harsimrat Kaur Badal accompanied another colleague, Hardeep Puri, to attend the foundation laying ceremony by Pakistan PM Imran Khan. Both, along with Sidhu, made for an ironic sight.

A similar situation was witnessed in the Punjab legislative assembly earlier this month when a resolution was taken up to praise the efforts of the state government and the centre for opening a cross-border passage to facilitate Sikh pilgrims to visit the gurdwara on the banks of the Ravi river in Pakistan.

Even as speakers from either side of the House were seeking to take credit for the proposal, with Akalis claiming they had been trying to do so for decades, Sidhu sat smiling. At least four MLAs, including two of the Congress, praised Sidhu while speaking on the issue. Moving the resolution, Amarinder Singh congratulated PMs Narendra Modi and Imran Khan, and expressed hope that the proposed corridor would be “a bridge of peace”. However, he reiterated that he would go there only when Pakistan stops arming terrorist groups in Kashmir and “ISI stops des­igns to spread terror in Punjab”.

“I am Sikh and Chief Minister. (As CM) my duty is to safeguard the state,” Singh said, referring to the busting of Pakistani terror modules and arrest of terrorists sent by Pakistan. “This is not done. I’ll take all the harshest measures. I won’t let bloodshed happen again in Punjab.” Describing the corridor proposal as an “army project and not Imran Khan project”, Singh said the newly elected PM of Pakistan should “rein in the Pakistani army”, and if he did not do so, the initiative by India will not fructify.

Ironically, SAD’s coalition partner, the BJP, too, had some misgivings. BJP MLA Som Parkash said that news about a permanent office of pro-Khalistan group Sikhs for Justice being opened in Lahore and after photographs of Khalistani terrorist Gopal Singh Chawla with Sidhu in Pakistan surfaced, “we can’t write off the CM’s apprehensions”. He said Pakistan had never been sincere.

Several opposition members, including those belonging to the Aam Aadmi Party, criticised the chief minister for linking the corridor issue with terrorism. AAP MLA Kanwar Sandhu was critical of him for raising “doubts” over the initiative and said he had “selective memory”. He reminded him that firing at the Line of Control had been going on during his previous stint as CM too, yet he took peace initiatives like organising games between the two Punjabs.

It was then that the former deputy CM and SAD president, Sukhbir Singh Badal, took everyone by surprise by mooting the idea that the House resolution should include the suggestion for a land swap deal. It would entail an area up to four kilometres inside Pakistan where Gurdwara Kartarpur Sahib is located. This could be exchanged for an equal area of land along the border within India. The suggestion was applauded by all sections of the House.

He said: “We should not create negativity in this good cause. No one can stop those who want to carry out a terror act. A terrorist has no religion. But an impression of distrust should not go (over the issue),” adding that “the Indian government will ensure foolproof security”. Sukhjinder Singh Randhawa, MLA from Dera Baba Nanak, from where the corridor is proposed to start, suggested land from his constituency could be handed over to Pakistan in the swap.

The House then passed the resolution unanimously. It said: “This House records its appreciation for the efforts made by the government of Punjab and government of India to open Kartarpur corridor and urges the government of India to hasten completion of works to operationalise the corridor well before the 550th birth anniversary celebrations of Sri Guru Nanak Dev Ji in November 2019, in keeping with the long pending demand of Punjabis, while ensuring that the hard earned peace of Punjab is not disturbed in any manner.”

While the suggestion for a land swap was later added to the resolution, some old-timers pointed out that it was neither something new, nor impractical. A similar exercise, but on a much larger scale, was carried out between India and Bangladesh after Partition, which settled an old dispute over territorial jurisdiction. The two countries formally exchanged 162 enclaves on August 1, 2015. These enclaves were fragmented or disputed territories located inside the other country. At the time of Partition, India and the then East Pakistan retained enclaves totalling about 119 sq km within each other’s newly demarcated boundaries. The residents of these enclaves faced serious problems and remained deprived of their basic rights. At the time of the exchange, there were 38,000 Indians in Bangladesh and 15,000 Bangladeshis in India.

The Modi government, which executed the swap with Bangladesh, could take up the resolution passed by the Punjab assembly for land swap. With the Pakistan PM expressing a desire to improve relations with India, the proposal could be even better than the one to link Gurdwara Kartarpur Sahib with India.

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