Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan attended on Wednesday the groundbreaking ceremony for the first visa-free border crossing with India, a corridor that will allow Sikh pilgrims to easily visit their shrines on each side of the border.
The crossing - known as the Kartarpur corridor - is a rare sign of cooperation between the two nuclear-armed rival countries.
Khan used the occasion to again call on India to work together to overcome bitterness of the past, resolve issues through dialogue to eliminate poverty in both nations. The crossing was a Khan initiative and India last week gave the green light for the construction to begin.
“I, the prime minister, my political party, the rest of our political parties, our army, all our institutions are all on one page. We want to move forward,” Khan said in a speech to open a new border crossing with India in Punjab province.
“If India takes one step forward then we will take two steps forward toward friendship,” he said.
Instead of visas, the pilgrims will be given special permits to access their shrines - the Dera Baba Nanak in India’s Punjab province, and the Gurdwara Darbar Sahib in Pakistan’s Narowal border district in its own Punjab province.
Wednesday’s ceremony was attended by hundreds of Sikh pilgrims as well as two lawmakers from India and officials from both countries.
Step toward peace
Pakistani army chief Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa called the laying of the foundation for the crossing a “step toward peace, which our region needs.”
Citing examples of Germany and France after World War II, Khan said that if two European neighbors can live peacefully, why not India and Pakistan, which have fought two out of three wars between them over the contested region of Kashmir.
Muslim Pakistan and mostly Hindu India have a range of disputes but their main bone of contention is the Muslim-majority Himalayan region of Kashmir, which they both claim in full but rule in part.
India accuses Pakistan of training and arming separatist militants battling Indian security forces in the Indian part of Kashmir.
Pakistan denies that saying it only offers political support to the Kashmiri people’s campaign against what they see as unjust treatment by New Delhi.
Violence in Kashmir routinely triggers tension between the two countries.
“Both Pakistan and India are nuclear powers, so war is no option as that will be a suicide. Then what else is the option except dialogue to resolve all issues,” said Khan, who was a world-famous cricket player before he turned to politics. “If there is a will on both sides, the issue of Kashmir could also be resolved.”
Appealing for a thaw in ties, Khan called for improvements in trade and other cross-border interaction and urged ending poverty through cooperation.
India’s own cricketer-turned-politician Navjot Singh Sidhu said at the ceremony that he is grateful to Khan and the government in New Delhi for taking “this positive step” that will help Sikhs on both sides of the border reach their shrines.
Pakistan Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi cited the Sikh religion’s founder, Guru Nanak, for his message of love and peace.
“We are laying the foundation of the Kartarpur corridor” with this same message, he said.
Qureshi said the Kartarpur corridor will open next November, on the 550th anniversary of Guru Nanak’s birth and will include a stretch of road 4 kilometers long, a bridge on a river and a border complex with all facilities necessary for pilgrims.
Next year is the 550th anniversary of the birth of the founder of Sikhism, Guru Nanak, in a small village near Lahore.
Thousands of Sikhs from India and beyond every year visit a shrine in the Pakistani village of Kartarpur, where Nanak died.