NEW DELHI, LAHORE: India has postponed signing a deal that will allow Sikhs to visit a holy shrine in neighboring Pakistan without a visa, a Foreign Ministry official in New Delhi was reported as saying.
The Kartarpur Corridor connects the Sikh shrines of Dera Baba Nanak Sahib, in India’s Punjab region, to the Gurdwara Darbar Sahib in Kartarpur, Pakistan.
The visa-free border crossing will be inaugurated next month, days ahead of one of Sikhism’s most sacred festivals and the 550th birthday of the religion’s founder.
Media reports said that the signing of the deal had been pushed back by a day to Oct. 24 and that C. L. Das, an official handling internal security at India’s Ministry of Home Affairs, would meet Pakistan officials along the border to sign the agreement.
The corridor is a rare example of cooperation and diplomacy between the two South Asian rivals, who came to the brink of war in February following a suicide attack in Indian-administered Kashmir.
Ties nose-dived further in August when India flooded its portion of the disputed valley with troops, imposed a communications lockdown and revoked the special legal status of the territory.
But finalizing the corridor project has proved tricky.
Earlier this week, India’s External Affairs Ministry said it was disappointed by Pakistan’s decision to levy a $20 service fee per pilgrim.
“It is a matter of disappointment that while understanding has been reached on most of the elements for facilitating the visit of pilgrims from India, Pakistan continue to insist on levying a service fee,” said the ministry. “Government has consistently urged Pakistan that in deference to the wishes of the pilgrims, it should not levy such a fee. While agreeing to sign the agreement, the government of Pakistan has been once again urged to reconsider its insistence to levy service fee on pilgrims. India would be ready to amend the agreement accordingly at any time.”
The connecting bridge at the border was also a significant issue. India favored an elevated bridge but Pakistan was only willing to build an embankment, fearing a possible breach in security.
New Delhi said all the infrastructure was in place in time for the project’s inauguration, which is expected to be attended by former Indian Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh.
Islamabad has also invited Singh to be part of the inaugural ceremony but he has yet to accept. Despite the bumps in the road Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan was upbeat about the unveiling.
“Pakistan is all set to open its doors for Sikhs from all across the globe, as the construction work on the Kartarpur project enters final stages and will be open to the public on 9th November 2019,” he posted on Facebook. “World’s largest gurdwara will be visited by Sikhs from across India and other parts of the world.”
Although the opening of the corridor is unlikely to lead to any kind of bilateral engagement or rapprochement between the two nations, Sikhs will be relieved that it is easier to access the shrine in Kartarpur.
The community has long sought easier access to Kartarpur, a village just four kilometers over the border in Pakistan, as it used to demand a lengthy visa and travel process.
Pilgrims will get special permits to access the shrine. Up to 5,000 pilgrims will be allowed to access the corridor daily.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi will inaugurate the Indian side of the corridor, but it is unclear if he will cross into Pakistan afterwards.