Navjot Singh Sidhu has a reason to cheer. The only confirmed item on the agenda for the meeting between foreign ministers of India and Pakistan is the Kartarpur Sahib corridor.
External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj will bat for the access of pilgrims to Gurdwara Darbar Sahib Kartarpur with her counterpart Shah Mehmood Qureshi when the two will meet next week on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) session in New York.
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Sidhu, who is a Congress MP, had claimed that Pakistani Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa had raised the Kartarpur Sahib corridor issue with him when the former had visited Pakistan. The proposal for the opening of the corridor was made in 1999 when late prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee visited Pakistan.
Sidhu had courted controversy when he hugged General Bajwa during his visit.
Sidhu, however, won't get any credit for the issue of Kartarpur Sahib corridor being in the agenda for the meeting between the ministers. Instead, it will go to Union Minister of Food Processing Industries Harsimrat Kaur Badal, who had called Sidhu an 'agent' of Pakistan after his visit to Pakistan and the controversy that followed.
“Recently, as you are aware, minister Harsimrat Kaur Badal ji wrote to the external affairs minister (EAM) on this matter to which EAM replied that she will raise this issue with the Pakistani government,'' said spokesperson of the external affairs ministry Raveesh Kumar.
Interestingly, the government seems to have grabbed the idea, while rejecting Sidhu's role in it. Just across the river Ravi, the gurudwara and a possible corridor for access to it and a visa-free visit agreement have been a long-standing demand. With the general elections not too far away and the 550th birth anniversary of Guru Nanak Dev next year, access to Gurdwara Darbar Sahib Kartarpur, where Guru Nanak spent his last two decades, will certainly be an emotive issue. It might even swing sentiments towards the Badals.
“The matter had been taken up with the Pakistani side several times in the past,'' said Kumar. In 1999, Vajpayee had suggested to Pakistan to consider visa-free visit to the shrine, but there was “no response'' from the neighbouring nation.
Kartarpur Sahib isn't in the list of the 15 shrines that are part of the 1974 protocol constituting an agreement between the government of India and the government of Pakistan on visits to religious shrines. In 2004, former prime minister Manmohan Singh had brought up the issue again, but Pakistan refused to respond.
What is different now? There are murmurs from the Pakistani side that suggest a possible softening of stance. Pakistan's Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry had first made a statement saying his government will open up a visa-free corridor for Sikh pilgrims to Kartarpur. This was one of the first statements that he made after assuming charge as minister. And with General Bajwa allegedly repeating this thought to Sidhu, it does seem like a real possibility. Also, the new government in Pakistan is keen to prove that they are different. Kartarpur, is the perfect, humanitarian gesture that could prove to be a win-win for both the sides.