India and Pakistan flip to spiritual diplomacy as peace talks stall

Historical rivals New Delhi and Islamabad have agreed to build a visa-free corridor that traverses their heavily militarized border and promises to ease bilateral tensions. But political realities may limit any real progress toward reconciliation.

Called the Kartarpur Corridor, the five-kilometer passageway connects Sikh shrines from the Indian city of Dera Baba Nanak to the town of Kartarpur in Pakistan, allowing Sikhs in both countries to travel to places of worship across the border without a visa.

The confidence-building measure is a milestone for the historically tense relationship — Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently compared the corridor with the fall of the Berlin Wall. It’s also a huge win for the regional Sikh community, which has long demanded the liberalization of travel to holy places. Sikhism is the fourth-largest religion in India, but in Muslim-majority Pakistan, it’s only practiced by a small segment of the population.

“Religious diplomacy — or using faith to bring people and nations together — has been very much part of Modi’s foreign policy in his outreach to the neighboring countries in the Subcontinent and beyond,” C. Raja Mohan, nonresident senior fellow at Carnegie India and a visiting professor at the National University of Singapore, said in a note.

Modi, who leads the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, tends to emphasize Hinduism as a uniting factor when he travels to Asian countries such as Nepal and Indonesia that have been influenced by the ancient religion. At home, however, the BJP’s right-wing rhetoric and policies have been linked to religious violence — mob killings and Hindu assaults on Muslims.

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