Home Geopolitics Borders Not Just ‘Punjabi Nostalgia’: Why Indian Punjab Wants Stronger Links With Pakistan

Not Just ‘Punjabi Nostalgia’: Why Indian Punjab Wants Stronger Links With Pakistan

The Indian Punjab's aspirations for stronger linkages with Pakistan is not driven by mere 'Punjabi nostalgia,' but by a very strong economic-cultural logic.


Every year as India commemorates independence, those who migrated from the other side of the Radcliffe line (which divides India and Pakistan), their children and grandchildren, commemorate the tragic partition of India and Pakistan – a division that directly led not just to large-scale forced migration and bloodshed, but also the permanent economic and cultural divide of the region of Punjab.

There are sections of the strategic community, commentariat and media that tend to blame ‘Punjabi nostalgia’ in New Delhi for the obsession of the Indian foreign policy establishment with Pakistan. 

But, the truth cannot be any different. India has had two Prime Ministers from Punjab, and neither of them actually visited Pakistan. In fact, in the last two decades itself, this task has been left to non-Punjabi Prime Ministers, including Atal Bihari Vajpayee who visited Lahore in 1999 and 2004 (besides visiting as External Affairs Minister in Morarji Desai’s cabinet in the late 1970s), and Narendra Modi when he made an unscheduled stopover in Lahore in 2015.

Punjab-Punjab economic and cultural linkages

What sections of the Delhi elite fail to realise is that for the Indian Punjabis who reside in the eastern parts of the state, ties with Pakistan are largely about better economic opportunities. An improvement in economic linkages between India and Pakistan could provide traders and farmers of Indian Punjab access not just to the markets of Pakistan’s Punjab, but also Central Asia and Afghanistan.

It is for this reason, that in virtually every election, economic ties with Pakistan is an important issue in Indian Punjab, well reiterated in the manifestos of political parties. Unsurprisingly further, Pakistan-bashing does not cut much ice.

To say that cultural links do not play any role in an otherwise hostile bilateral is far from the truth.

The Indian Punjabi’s desire to visit Sikh religious shrines in Pakistan, for instance, is an important factor. But, given the fact that the founder of the Sikh faith was born in Pakistan and even the Ardās (Sikh prayer) speaks about unfettered access to religious shrines, can one blame the Sikh community for its cross-border desires?

Both Sri Nankana Sahib, the birthplace of Guru Nanak Dev, Sikhism’s founder saint, and Gurdwara Darbar Sahib Kartarpur, the place where he spent the last few years of his life, are in Pakistani Punjab. There has, in fact, been a demand for connecting Dera Baba Nanak (Punjab, India) with Darbar Sahib Kartarpur and providing visa-free access to Sikh pilgrims. While Pakistan has expressed its willingness to go ahead with the corridor, the Indian side remains skeptical due to security issues.

Gurdwara Nankana Sahib, Punjab province, Pakistan | Wikimedia Commons

As far as Confidence-Building Measures (CBMs) are concerned, no attention has been paid to the logistics of bus services like the Amritsar-Nankana Sahib whose inaugural service was attended by former Prime Minister, Dr Manmohan Singh. Religious groups of Sikhs have been crying hoarse for long about setting up visa consulates at Lahore and Amritsar, but to no avail. Last year, on more than three occasions, Sikh religious pilgrims were barred from visiting shrines in Pakistan.

Even in terms of trade through the Wagah-Attari land crossing, not much attention has been given to the logistical demands of traders. Trade has hovered between 2.5 to 3 billion USD despite the infrastructural upgradations at Attari. In comparison, connectivity between borderlands in other domains (rail-bus services) have received much more attention in recent years. While one can understand the fact that there are strains between both countries, at least religious pilgrimages should not be restricted from moving about.

The evening flag lowering ceremony at the India-Pakistan International Border near Wagah (taken from the Pakistani side) | Wikimedia Commons

Relevance of recent developments

Recent events are encouraging, and have raised hopes that now both trade and people-to-people contacts would get greater attention.

In the economic sphere, not only has the newly-elected Prime Minister of Pakistan, Imran Khan, pitched for closer economic ties, but even the Chinese Ambassador to India recently visited Punjab and its border with Pakistan. Some analysts have also suggested that Beijing may be keen to give a fillip to bilateral trade through the Wagah-Attari land crossing.

Next year also happens to be the 550th birth anniversary of Guru Nanak Dev, the first Guru of the Sikhs. Former cricketer and minister in the current Punjab state cabinet, Navjot Singh Sidhu said that Imran Khan’s election provides a golden opportunity for the celebrations beginning from the Pakistan side. Sidhu is also the only Indian scheduled to attend Imran Khan’s swearing-in on 18 August.

The Punjab Government headed by Chief Minister, Captain Amarinder Singh, has also expressed its willingness to push for a religious corridor between Dera Baba Nanak and Kartarpur Sahib.

One can now only hope that the strategic community in New Delhi realises that Punjab is landlocked, and the desire for greater linkages isn’t simple a nostalgic aspiration. In this context, perhaps a few first-person visits to the borderlands by these commentators would help deepen the discourse.

Tridivesh Singh Maini is a New Delhi-based policy analyst currently associated with the Jindal School of International Affairs, OP Jindal Global University, Sonepat.

Views expressed here are the author’s own.

Featured image: Wikimedia Commons.

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