by AFP/ pic by AFP
PAKISTAN – Islamabad and New Delhi signed an agreement Thursday on a visa-free corridor between the two countries that will allow Sikh pilgrims in India to visit the shrine to their religion’s founder, which is in Pakistan.
The Kartarpur Corridor deal – a rare example of cooperation between the nuclear-armed arch-rivals – follows months of heightened tensions, mainly over the disputed region of Kashmir.
“Indian pilgrims of all faiths and persons of Indian origin… can use the corridor. The travel will be visa-free,” said S.C.L. Das, a joint secretary in the Indian Ministry of Home Affairs, at a press conference after the agreement was signed.
“Pilgrims from around the world are also welcome,” added Pakistan’s foreign ministry spokesman Mohammad Faisal.
The deal allows for a secure corridor and bridge between the two countries, leading directly to the grave of Sikhism’s founder Guru Nanak, just four kilometres (two miles) from the Indian border.
Pakistan had employed hundreds of labourers to spruce up the shrine, including building a border immigration checkpoint and a bridge, as well as expanding the grounds comprising the shrine itself.
India had long been asking Pakistan for such a corridor, but the project’s realisation was prevented by years of diplomatic tensions between the two countries that have fought three wars since the partition of the Indian subcontinent in 1947.
The corridor is expected to be inaugurated in early November, ahead of the guru’s 550th birthday on November 12, which is marked with celebrations by millions of Sikhs around the world.
However Delhi said that it is still contesting Pakistan’s bid to charge each pilgrim $20 per visit.
The pair have maintained an uneasy calm since tit-for-tat cross-border air raids across their disputed Kashmir frontier in February sparked fears of wider war, with each side claiming to have shot down a fighter jet from the other side.
Pakistani and Indian soldiers have also continued to fire over the Line of Control — the de-facto border dividing the Himalayan territory, killing civilians on both sides in recent days.
Kashmir has been divided between India and Pakistan since the end of British colonial rule in 1947.
Both claim the Himalayan territory in full and have fought two wars over it.
The Sikh faith began in the 15th century in the city of Lahore, which is now part of Pakistan, when Guru Nanak began teaching a faith that preached equality between all men.