Why Modi govt chose Amritsar as venue of the Heart of Asia conference

New Delhi’s choice of Amritsar seems aimed at sending out a message to Pakistan, which has been seen as the main deal breaker when it comes to integrating south Asia


Prime Minister Narendra Modi will be joined by Afghan president Ashraf Ghani at the inauguration of the Heart of Asia conference on Sunday. Photo: Reuters
Prime Minister Narendra Modi will be joined by Afghan president Ashraf Ghani at the inauguration of the Heart of Asia conference on Sunday. Photo: Reuters

New Delhi: India has chosen Amritsar—the seat of the Sikh religion and a city bordering Pakistan—as the venue for the sixth Heart of Asia ministerial conference on Afghanistan.

The choice of Amritsar is in line with the Narendra Modi government’s policy to move international conferences out of the national capital and showcase other cities in India. But the choice of Amritsar also lends to the theme of connectivity, which is central to the Heart of Asia conference, having been a stop on the old Grand Trunk (GT) Road that once seamlessly connected Bangladesh to Peshawar in Pakistan, close to the border with Afghanistan. And New Delhi’s choice seems aimed at sending out a message to Pakistan which has been seen as the main deal breaker when it comes to integrating south Asia.

The GT Road, as it is commonly called, was one of the main arteries of south Asia—for centuries linking the eastern and western regions of the Indian subcontinent—from Sonargaon in Bangladesh, running across the vast Gangetic plains upto Peshawar and beyond.

It was perhaps with this in mind that former prime minister Manmohan Singh once very famously said that he dreamt of a day when “while retaining our respective national identities, one can have breakfast in Amritsar, lunch in Lahore and dinner in Kabul.”

“That is how my forefathers lived. That is how I want our grandchildren to live,” he said, sharing his vision about relations with Pakistan, while addressing the industry body Ficci in New Delhi on 8 January 2007.

All this, however, is predicated on one issue—better India-Pakistan relations. During Singh’s term in office as prime minister (2004-14), many steps were taken to increase connectivity between India and Pakistan—mainly the two Punjabs and Kashmir. But the ups and downs, which have so commonly characterized the India-Pakistan relationship, did not allow Singh to realize his dream during his decade in office.

Singh’s wish seemed to have been fulfilled in a way when Prime Minister Narendra Modi, after a stop in Kabul on 25 December 2015, unexpectedly made a stop in Lahore for Pakistani prime minister Nawaz Sharif’s grand daughter’s wedding in Lahore and then returned to New Delhi after an official visit to Russia.

But the bonhomie generated by the Modi visit to Pakistan dissolved quickly when on 2 January, terrorists targeted the Pathankot airbase in Punjab. And subsequent tensions between India and Pakistan over Kashmir, Pakistan’s highlighting of alleged human rights violations in Kashmir, terrorist attacks in Uri on 18 September and Nagrota earlier this week and tensions due to cross-border firing in violation of a 2003 agreement have only worsened ties.

While India has highlighted Pakistan’s role in propagating terrorism at various fora recently including the G20 meeting in September in China and a gathering of the world’s largest emerging economies in Goa in October, India is expected to convey a firm message to Pakistan at the Heart of Asia meet that India, Afghanistan and other nations in the region would continue their pursuit for greater connectivity and regional integration, even if Pakistan is opposed to the concept.

Modi will be joined by Afghan president Ashraf Ghani at the inauguration of the conference on 4 December when Kabul is expected to underscore India’s view on the importance of regional connectivity.

The Attari-Wagah border between India and Pakistan is less than 30 kilometres away from Amritsar. And India is expected to use the Heart of Asia conference to press Islamabad to allow trucks, carrying goods from Afghanistan that transit through Pakistan, all the way to India and other south Asian markets. New Delhi has been arguing that war-ravaged Afghanistan would be able to achieve its economic potential only if it is allowed freedom of transit to major markets in south Asia.

An agreement between Afghanistan and Pakistan on trade first signed in 2010, does not allow for Afghan trucks, that bring goods from Afghanistan to the Wagah border in Pakistan, to carry back products from India to Afghanistan. At Wagah, too, goods have to be unloaded from trucks coming from Afghanistan and reloaded again on other vehicles to be brought to Attari.

The trade and transit pact was revised earlier this year, but this too has no provisions for Indian goods to be taken to Pakistan.

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