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ISLAMABAD: In a rare positive development in Pakistan-India ties, New Delhi has accepted an Islamabad offer about building a new border crossing and road connecting their two provinces called Punjab, making it easier for Sikh pilgrims to visit a religious site in Pakistan.

The Indian cabinet agreed on Thursday to avail Pakistan’s offer about a corridor in view of the 550th birth anniversary of the founder of Sikhism, Shri Guru Nanak Dev Ji, next year.

India’s Finance Minister Arun Jaitley announced the decision at a press briefing and said the 550th birth anniversary would be celebrated in a grand manner. India’s External Affairs Ministry conveyed the decision to Pakistan’s High Commission in Delhi and urged “the Government of Pakistan to recognise the sentiments of the Sikh community and to develop a corridor with suitable facilities in its territory from the International Border to Gurdwara Kartarpur Sahib to facilitate easier access and smooth passage of Indian pilgrims throughout the year”.

Hours later, Islamabad announced that the groundbreaking of the Kartarpur Corridor connecting Dera Baba Nanak in India’s Gurdaspur district with Gurdwara Kartarpur Sahib in Pakistan’s Narowal district would be performed on Wednesday by Prime Minister Imran Khan himself.

Proposal was made by Pakistan; PM to open construction work on corridor next week

Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi announced the decision about the nearly four-kilometre-long corridor in a tweet. “Pakistan has already conveyed to India its decision to open Kartarpur Corridor for Baba Guru Nanak’s 550th birth anniversary. PM Imran Khan will do groundbreaking at Kartarpur facilities on 28th November. We welcome the Sikh community to Pakistan for this auspicious occasion,” Mr Qureshi tweeted.

Welcoming the development, Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry said: “Indian Cabinet endorsement of Pakistan’s proposition on Kartarpur Border Opening is victory of peace lobby in both countries, it is a step towards right direction and we hope such steps will encourage voice of reason and tranquillity on both sides of the border.”

The Kartarpur Corridor proposal has been on the table since 1988, when Pakistan and India agreed in principle to construct a corridor from Dera Baba Nanak, in India, to Kartarpur Sahib in Pakistan, but tense relations between the two countries prevented progress on the plan.

In the absence of the corridor, Sikh devotees gather near the border fence and offer prayers with Gurdwara Kartarpur Sahib in sight, with some of them even using binoculars to better view the temple.

The corridor proposal was renewed by Army Chief Gen Qamar Bajwa in a meeting with Indian politician and Punjab minister Navjot Singh Sidhu, who visited Pakistan in August to attend Prime Minister Khan’s inauguration.

Foreign Office spokesman Dr Muhammad Faisal had on that occasion said Pakistan was working to narrow the trust deficit with India and planned to open the corridor as one of the initiatives to achieve the goal.

The development on the Kartarpur Corridor was to be originally announced on the occasion of meeting of the Indian and Pakistani foreign ministers on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in September. But the meeting was cancelled by India. Pakistan Peoples Party chairman Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari hailed the decision by the two governments to build the corridor as a “realisation of Benazir Bhutto’s dream”.

He said his mother had first proposed that Sikh pilgrims be granted “a visa-free corridor to Kartarpur shrine from the Indian border”, a PPP statement said.

FO briefing

Speaking at his weekly media briefing, FO spokesman Dr Faisal again asked India to “seriously” engage with Pakistan.

“India needs to show seriousness and sincerity in the dialogue process,” he said referring to Prime Minister Khan’s letter to his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi.

He said Mr Khan’s letter contained a comprehensive roadmap and a plan on the way forward. India, he recalled, was offered talks on all matters, including people-to-people contact and religious tourism.

He, moreover, reminded that India had initially accepted the offer but reneged immediately afterwards. “In this scenario, how can we move forward if India is continuously shying away from the dialogue process,” he maintained.

“We, on our part, continue to make efforts but in the absence of positive response from the other side the success of our efforts cannot be assured,” he added.

Published in Dawn, November 23rd, 2018

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