India and Pakistan exchanged letters on Thursday, committing to build the required infrastructure for visa-free direct travel by Indian Sikh pilgrims to Pakistan’s Kartarpur Sahib gurdwara, allowing them to mark the 550th Birth Anniversary of Guru Nanak Dev in November 2019, in a move described by a Pakistani minister as the “victory of peace lobbies” in both countries.
Officials from India and Pakistan will meet soon to discuss the logistics of the corridor and point of border crossing where the roads which pilgrims will traverse on the Indian side from Dera Guru Nanak Dev in Gurdaspur district directly to the border and from the Pakistani side of the border directly to Kartarpur Darbar Sahib Gurudwara, a senior official confirmed to The Hindu.
In a rare sign of concord between the two countries, the letters were exchanged on the same day, with Pakistan’s government informing the Indian High Commission in Islamabad that Prime Minister Imran Khan will lay the foundation stone for the corridor on the Pakistani side on November 28.
A cabinet meeting in Delhi proposed building a passage for the pilgrims accessible “365 days and 24 hours”, sources told The Hindu . Hours later, the cabinet decision was conveyed by Ministry of External Affairs in a letter to the Pakistan High Commission in Delhi.
“The government of India urges the government of Pakistan to recognise the sentiments of the Sikh community to develop a corridor with suitable facilities in its territory to facilitate easier access and smooth passage of Indian pilgrims throughout the year,” the letter sent by the Ministry of External Affairs said.
It added that, “The Ministry of External Affairs avails itself of this opportunity to renew to the High Commission for the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, the assurances of its highest consideration.”
The cabinet also decided that preparations for the 550th anniversary of the founder of the Sikh faith will be overseen by Home Minister Rajnath Singh, which will include the setting up of a “centre for interfaith studies” in Amritsar, University Chairs in U.K. and Canada for the study of Guru Nanak, and a railway train connecting holy sites for the community.
The Kartarpur Sahib corridor was first proposed in 1999 when Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee took a bus ride to Lahore, as a long-standing demand from the Sikh community for easy access to the revered shrine across the border where Guru Nanak spent the last 18 years of his life.
On August 18 this year, during the swearing-in ceremony of the Prime Minister Imran Khan, Pakistan’s Army Chief Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa had told visiting Congress leader Navjot Singh Sidhu that Pakistan hoped to build the corridor .
When Mr. Sidhu returned, the government including NDA ally in Punjab Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) had criticised the move, and rejected the Pakistan offer. In September, there were further acrimonious exchanges over the announcement and an abrupt cancellation of talks between the Foreign Ministers Sushma Swaraj and Shah Mehmood Qureshi on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly meet in New York.
However, according to both Indian and Pakistani officials aware of the discussions, despite the cancellation of talks and the public disavowal of the corridor offer, both sides have been in contact over the issue for the past few months.
Responding to the Indian announcement, Mr. Qureshi said Pakistan would “welcome Sikh pilgrims”.
“[The] Indian Cabinet endorsement of Pakistan’s proposition on Kartarpur Sahib corridor is [the] victory of peace lobby in both countries; its a step towards right direction and we hope such steps encourage voice of reasons and tranquility on both sides of the border,” Information Minister Fawad Chaudhury tweeted.
Sources in the MEA denied that the two decisions were in any way coordinated, calling suggestions that India’s corridor was being planned as a response to the Pakistani proposal as “preposterous and hurtful to the Sikh community”. The sources added that the government hopes Pakistan will place no restrictions on the number of pilgrims travelling and allow consular access to them.
“Despite the harassment that pilgrims face, with the display of Khalistani posters or through the lack of access to consular officials, Sikh pilgrims continue to make the difficult journey. Our proposal is so that the burden of pilgrims can be eased significantly,” an official told The Hindu .