Across the Radcliffe Line: Reconnecting the Punjab

If all goes well in the next few weeks, overland trade between India and Pakistan across the international border in the Punjab will get a big boost.

After decades of restrictions that stifled commerce across what was a single economic space until the Partition, the open door for bilateral trade across the Radcliffe Line could help alter the politics of India-Pakistan relations in both countries.

As part of the road map on trade normalisation between the two countries, Pakistan has agreed, in principle, to allow the import of all tradable items across the Wagah-Attari border in the Punjab.

Earlier this year, Pakistan had started trading with India on the basis of a small negative list of about 1,200 items. By the end of this year, Pakistan is expected to implement the most-favoured-status for India.

Under the rules of the World Trading Organisation, the MFN status is about lifting discriminatory practices against another country.

The MFN status would not have meant much for the divided states of the Punjab, because Pakistan has allowed, until now, only 137 items to be imported via the land border in the Punjab.

The commerce ministry in Pakistan has now moved the cabinet to remove the constraints on overland trade between the two countries. If the cabinet approves, the flood gates for commerce in the Punjab could open by the end of October.

Traders on both sides of the Radcliffe Line have long demanded the lifting of all barriers against commerce between India and Pakistan.

Historically, the Punjab connected the subcontinent to inner Asia and the Persian Gulf through the trans-Indus territories. The Partition of the Subcontinent resulted not just in the political division of the Punjab but also its economic marginalisation.

Not surprisingly the chief ministers of Punjab on both sides have become major champions of reviving the trade and commercial relations across the Radcliffe Line.

Shabaz Sharif, the Chief Minister of West Punjab, and Prakash Singh Badal, his counter part in East Punjab are in political opposition to the ruling parties at the national level--the Pakistan People's Party in Islamabad and and the Indian National Congress in Delhi.

Yet, they have been the strongest champions of expanded engagement between India and Pakistan. This adds an interesting twist to the foreign policy debates in Islamabad and Delhi.

In Pakistan, there is a rare consensus today among the major political parties for the normalisation of economic relations with India. The reservations come from the army and the Islamist parties.

In India, the BJP, which had taken many initiatives towards improving ties with Pakistan when it was in power at the centre during 1998-2004, has long forgotten the foreign policy legacy of Atal Bihari Vajpayee.

It now opposes every move that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh makes towards Pakistan. But the BJP would want to take a deep breath on the question of trade between the two Punjabs.

For its long standing political ally in the Punajb, the Akali Dal, is the one leading the charge towards a liberal Pakistan policy.

When Vajpayee was the Prime Minister making bold overtures to Pakistan, the Congress chief minister in Chandigarh, Amarinder Singh complemented Delhi with his local initiative on strengthening contacts with Lahore.

Put simply, the people of the Punjab, the greatest victims of the Partition, have a big stake in transcending it.

Unlike the BJP leadership and the conservatives in the foreign policy establishment in Delhi, the political and commercial classes in the Punjab are ready to back all peace initiatives towards Islamabad.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh can easily end some of his current defensiveness on Pakistan by flaunting the strong support in the Punjab for the normalisation of relations with Islamabad.

As hopes for land trade in the Punjab rise, there are growing demands in Rajasthan and the Sindh for opening the old trade routes between the two provinces.

If you combine this with a liberalisation of trade across the Line of Control in Jammu & Kashmir and the promotion of seaborne commerce between Mumbai and Gujarat on the Indian side and Karachi across the waters of the Arabian Sea, it is not difficult to imagine a major change in the Indian political debate on Pakistan.

(The writer is a Distinguished Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation and a Contributing Editor for 'The Indian Express')

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