November 24, 2018 @ 11:45 am

24 NOVEMBER 2018

Corridor of hope

Movement on the Kartarpur proposal is timely and potentially game-changing

The announcement by India and Pakistan of plans to operationalise a visa-free corridor between Dera Baba Nanak in Indian Punjab and Kartarpur Sahib in Pakistan’s Punjab heeds a longstanding plea of Sikh pilgrims. That demand had gathered pace in 1995, when Pakistan renovated the Kartarpur gurdwara, situated on the site on the bank of the Ravi where the founder of Sikhism, Guru Nanak, spent his last 18 years. Leaders from both sides, including Prime Ministers Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Benazir Bhutto, had pushed for it. In their effort to facilitate travel by Sikhs to important shrines on both sides of the border, they were also alert to the potential of such a move to heal ties amongst their people, and promote dialogue between the two governments. Given its easy logistics, the 4-km-long Kartarpur corridor is a low-hanging fruit as a meaningful confidence-building measure. The announcement now is particularly timely, with the 550th birth anniversary of Guru Nanak falling in November 2019. The initiative can also become a template for cross-border exchanges based on faith, which could provide a balm for many communities such as Kashmiri Pandits, who have long asked for access to visit the Sharda Peeth in the Neelum Valley in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir; Sufis in Pakistan who wish to visit the dargah of Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti in Ajmer, Rajasthan; and Sikhs in India and Pakistan wanting to visit important shrines on both sides of the border.

Much will depend on how quickly India and Pakistan act on their commitment, once President Ram Nath Kovind lays the foundation stone at the corridor’s India end on November 26, and Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan does so at the other end on November 28. Even more will depend on how the two governments manage their relationship in a way that avoids making pilgrims a pawn in bilateral tensions. Recently, there was an ugly and unnecessary controversy when Pakistan Army Chief Qamar Javed Bajwa revived the Kartarpur proposal in a conversation with Navjot Singh Sidhu, a Minister in the Congress government in Punjab, at Mr. Khan’s swearing-in ceremony in August. This had set back bilateral ties, threatening progress on the project proposal. Going forward, it is important that issues related to the corridor are managed in a non-political manner and details left to diplomats and officials to sort out — for instance, the issue of Indian consular access to pilgrims, which flared up on Friday. Given the bilateral freeze, the Kartarpur project will compel India and Pakistan to engage in a positive and purposeful manner, at a time when few other avenues for engagement exist. It is a reminder that dialogue and search for areas of concord are the only way forward for both countries.

Rolling back

Poland’s ultra-conservative regime finally reverses the forced retirement of judges

The Polish government’s decision to rescind the forced retirement of several Supreme Court judges is a welcome sign of its willingness to improve compliance with the rule of law. This could begin a process to resolve the stand-off between Poland’s Law and Justice party (PiS) government and the European Union. The decision to reverse the contested provision in the law, introduced in July, follows the European Court of Justice (ECJ) order last month to suspend the measure. The European Commission had earlier asked the Luxembourg-based institution to freeze the retirement move, pending a final ruling on whether Poland’s judicial overhaul was at odds with the bloc’s common policies. Brussels has in parallel launched a formal probe into Warsaw’s adherence to “fundamental European values”. Poland’s Supreme Court too had referred the contested provision to the ECJ to ascertain that there was no discrepancy between the national and European statutes. But the referral drew flak from PiS apparatchiks, who regard criticism of domestic policies by the EU as encroachment on Poland’s sovereignty. Since winning a commanding majority in 2015, the ultra-conservative government has undermined media freedoms and democratic institutions. The lower age of retirement, which in effect removed a third of the judges, was seen as part of a design to politicise the judiciary. This followed the subversion of the constitutional tribunal, which adjudicates the validity of laws. A 2018 statute that criminalises references to Nazi atrocities too drew condemnation as an assault on freedom of expression.

Poland’s principal pro-European opposition party, the Civic Platform, characterises the regressive laws as part of the government’s design to pull the country out of the EU. Its improved performance in the October regional elections may well have forced the government to reconsider some of its policies. The PiS will also be keen to project a moderate face ahead of the 2019 polls to the European and Polish parliaments. Developments in Warsaw will be watched closely in the other three Visegrád countries, notably Hungary, where the government’s stridently populist stance has brought it into open confrontation with Brussels. In fact, Poland and Hungary face a legal challenge at the Luxembourg court over non-compliance with the policy to share responsibility for the treatment of Syrian migrants. A refrain from these governments has been that the institutional reforms were meant to complete the post-socialist transition. But such an explanation does not wash with civil society, judging from the opposition to the authoritarian lurch. As the biggest beneficiary of EU funds in the current budget cycle, Poland has an interest in improving its standing with an eye on future allocations. As it commemorates a century since gaining independence, it is time the country looked ahead.

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