India and Pakistan are set to inaugurate the construction of a corridor to facilitate hassle free cross-border travel for religious devotees – a rare step to improve ties between the two South Asian foes even as deep-seated divisions continue to obstruct progress in long-stalled peace talks.
The Indian cabinet approved the building and development of the so called Kartarpur corridor last week, a five kilometer (3.1 miles) long passage to connect two Sikh temples on either side of the border between India and Pakistan due to open in 2019. The temple in Kartarpur in Pakistan is among the holiest sites for Sikhs.
The laying of the road’s first foundation stone in Pakistan, Wednesday, comes days after the 10th anniversary of the Mumbai terror attacks, a four day terror siege in which 164 people were killed. Indian intelligence blamed Pakistan based terrorists for orchestrating the attacks. Ever since, it’s been a major bone of contention in any move to talk peace between the two neighbors.
“This corridor will be a historical landmark between India and Pakistan and will also boost tourism as more pilgrims would visit the holy shrine throughout the year between two countries,” said an Indian press release.
The road link, dubbed the “corridor of peace” in local media, is the latest attempt to improve cultural ties between the two countries who have harbored resentment for decades, after the bloody riots which followed the creation of the modern states of India and Pakistan following the departure of the British colonial government in 1947.
“Opening the corridor will allow Sikh Yatrees ease of access for their most reverential place of worship which has been their longstanding demand. This is also reflective of the importance and primacy that Pakistan gives to all minorities,” said the statement released by the Pakistan Foreign Affairs Ministry.
But while the move has been welcomed by many as a positive step, the two countries remain divided, especially over the future of the disputed Kashmir region.
Even as the Indian cabinet approved the building of the corridor, Delhi on Wednesday dismissed the resumption of bilateral talks.
Earlier, Pakistan invited Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to attend a regional summit in Pakistan next year.
Responding to Pakistan’s invitation, Modi’s foreign minister, Sushma Swaraj rejected the idea of talks. “Bilateral dialogue and the Kartarpur corridor are two different things,” said Swaraj at a press conference in Hyderabad. “The moment Pakistan stops terrorist activities in India, the dialogue can start.”
The long and winding road
The Sikh temple – also known as a Gurdwara – of Darbar Sahib is considered holy by the Sikh community. The Gurdwara was home to Guru Nanak Dev, one of the leaders of the faith for 18 years and he died there in 1539.
Sikhs from India have traveled to Pakistan to pay homage at the shrine for years but the trip is a difficult one to make due to a contentious relationship and security concerns.
The corridor will enable devotees to travel from the border town of Gurdaspur and across the international border into Pakistan without visas.
The inauguration of the corridor on the Indian side took place Monday and Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan is scheduled to inaugurate construction at the Pakistani end later today.
Setbacks to talks
Over the years, multiple attempts have been made by both administrations to reconcile and restart bilateral talks. Back in 2014, Modi invited then Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to his swearing-in ceremony and later visited him in Pakistan on his birthday in December, 2015. But a terrorist attack on an Indian military installation in September 2016 that Delhi blamed on what it said were Pakistan-linked terrorists overshadowed these efforts. Pakistan denied any role in the attack.
More recently, in September, India canceled a meeting between Swaraj and her Pakistani counterpart, Shah Mehmood Qureshi, on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly, citing the killing of a soldier by militants associated with Pakistan as the reason for pulling out.
Soon after, Khan hit back on Twitter saying, “Disappointed at the arrogant & negative response by India to my call for resumption of the peace dialogue. However, all my life I have come across small men occupying big offices who do not have the vision to see the larger picture.”
Sophia Saifi in Islamabad, Pakistan, contributed to this report.