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Navigating Strained Ties: Punjab’s Influence on India-Pakistan Trade Resumption

Along with agrarian issues, several bread and butter issues, and several emotive issues, the resumption of bilateral trade with India and Pakistan via the Wagah (Pakistan)- Attari (India) land crossing, which Pakistan suspended in August 2019 after India’s revocation of Article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir, as well as greater air connectivity between the state and the rest of the world has been raised by leaders of several political parties, in Punjab during the election campaign for the Lok Sabha elections. Punjab will be voting on June 1, 2024 the last phase of voting).

Lok Sabha (LS) candidates across party lines have spoken about enhancing the state’s air connectivity with several countries. Apart from this, there is a bi-partisan consensus about re-opening trade with Pakistan via the Wagah-Attari crossing. It is not just business groups, which for long have been calling for the re-opening of trade, but also the Lok Sabha candidates of more than one party have spoken about the dire need for the resumption of land trade with Pakistan, highlighting the economic benefits, accruing for the same, for all sections of society. 

The manifesto of Punjab’s regional party – the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD), has highlighted the most, the ties with Pakistan (of late, the party has been more vocal on several issues about center-state relations). Apart from the resumption of trade ties with Pakistan via the Wagah-Attari land crossing, it has also called for opening the Hussainiwala (Ferozepur, India) – Ganda Singh Wala (Pakistan) for trade.

The manifesto also makes a clear reference to ease out procedures for pilgrims seeking to pay obeisance at Kartarpur Sahib – the resting place of Guru Nanak Dev ji, the founder of the Sikh faith via the Kartarpur Corridor and has said that it will seek transfer of Kartarpur Sahib from Pakistan to India through mutual land exchange between the two countries.

External Affairs Minister, S Jaishankar earlier this month had said that he would raise the demand for removing the passport requirement for paying obeisance at Kartarpur Sahib.  

Said Jaishankar: “You have raised the issue about the passport. We understand that many people want to go to Kartarpur Sahib but may not have passports. We will raise this issue with the Pakistan government… take some decision on it,”

Pakistan’s statements regarding the resumption of trade with India

On the Pakistan side, the current Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister in the current Shehbaz Sharif government, Muhammad Ishaq Dar had hinted in March 2024 that the Government was looking at the possibility of resumption of trade with India. In 2021 and 2022, there were talks of resumption of trade with India, but Pakistan did not agree to it due to domestic pressures. Several members of Pakistan’s business community have been urging the Sharif government to resume trade with India. Recently, Dar pointed out that the main reason for trade with India being suspended was the imposition of “heavy duties”, by India on imports from Pakistan.

Pakistan’s federal government has thus been giving mixed signals regarding the resumption of trade ties with India. Pakistan Punjab’s first woman chief Minister, Maryam Nawaz (daughter of former Pakistan PM Nawaz Sharif and niece of current Pakistan PM Shehbaz Sharif) however has spoken in favor of better ties between India and Pakistan.

While addressing Sikh pilgrims from India who had come to pay obeisance at Kartarpur Sahib said: “When you see the borders are open and you come here, you come for pilgrimage, so then, too, one remembers Nawaz Sharif, because he says, don’t fight wars with neighbors, open the doors, open the doors of friendship, open the doors of your hearts”

Maryam Nawaz invoked her family’s links with Jatti Umrah (Taran Taran, Panjab, India) and also spoke about the common heritage of both the Punjabs.

Can the two Panjabs play a role in reducing tensions between both countries?

While there is a possibility of Indian and Pakistani Punjabis playing a role in reviving economic linkages between India and Pakistan it remains to be seen if the new government which takes over in New Delhi post-June 4th, 2024 is willing to invest political capital in the resumption of trade ties with Pakistan. In Pakistan, the current government which is facing several domestic challenges and would need to take all stakeholders on board before making a final decision regarding the resumption of trade ties with India.

In conclusion, while given the current state of bilateral relations, it is important to have realistic expectations, it is important to bear in mind, that the Punjab has played an important role in the past in the resumption of engagement between India and Pakistan. Any forward movement regarding resumption of trade between both countries will depend however on several factors and while it can not be ruled out, it will not be an easy task given the current strains between both countries.

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Tridivesh Singh Maini

Tridivesh Singh Maini is a New Delhi-based Policy Analyst. He is faculty member of OP Jindal Global University, Sonepat, Haryana.

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