India and Pakistan set to sign pilgrim corridor pact amid Kashmir tension
India and Pakistan are set to sign an agreement on Indian pilgrims visiting a Sikh shrine in Pakistan, rare cooperation between the nuclear-armed neighbours at a time of tension that has brought exchanges of fire on their disputed border.
The pact will introduce visa-free access from India to the Pakistani town of Kartarpur, home to a temple that marks the site where the founder of Sikhism, Guru Nanak, died.
India's foreign ministry said in a statement late on Monday an understanding had been reached on most issues and India was prepared to sign the agreement on Wednesday.
Pakistani officials were not immediately available for comment, but Pakistan's Dawn newspaper cited a foreign ministry spokesman as saying agreement had been reached and the two sides would sign the pact soon.
The Sikh minority in India has long sought easier access to the temple in Kartarpur, which is just over the border in Muslim-majority Pakistan.
The collaboration comes at a time of tension between the rivals, with Pakistan particularly aggrieved over recent Indian government measures in its part of the divided Muslim-majority region of Kashmir.
Both countries claim the Himalayan region in full, but rule it in part.
India in August revoked special autonomy in Indian-controlled Kashmir, which was accompanied by a crackdown on dissent by India's security forces there, angering Pakistan.
Partition of India: The way forward
On 15 August 1947, British India split into two nations – Hindu-majority India and Muslim-majority Pakistan. The two countries continue to be hostile towards each other despite some efforts to improve bilateral ties. By Shamil Shams
Birth of two nations: in 1947, British India was divided into two countries – India and Pakistan. Pakistan's founder Mohammad Ali Jinnah and his All-India Muslim League party had first demanded autonomy for Muslim-majority areas in the undivided India and only later a separate country for Muslims. Jinnah believed that Hindus and Muslims could not continue to live together, as they were distinctly different "nations"
The line of blood: the partition of British India was extremely violent. Following the birth of India and Pakistan, violent communal riots began in many western areas, mostly in Punjab. Historians say that more than a million people died in clashes and millions more migrated from Indian territory to Pakistan and from the Pakistani side to India
The 1948 war: India and Pakistan clashed over Kashmir soon after their independence. The Muslim-majority Kashmir region was ruled by a Hindu leader, but Jinnah wanted it to be part of Pakistani territory. Indian and Pakistani troops fought in Kashmir in 1948, with India taking control of most part of the valley, while Pakistan occupied a smaller area. India and Pakistan continue to clash over Kashmir
Like U.S. and Canada? Liberal historians say that Jinnah and Mahatma Gandhi wanted cordial ties between newly independent states. Jinnah, for instance, believed that ties between India and Pakistan should be similar to those between the US and Canada. But after his death in 1948, his successors followed a collision course with New Delhi
The 'other': Indian and Pakistani governments present very different accounts of partition. While India emphasises the Indian National Congress' freedom movement against British rulers – with Gandhi as its main architect – Pakistani textbooks focus on a "struggle" against both British and Hindu "oppression". State propaganda in both countries paints each other as an "enemy" that cannot be trusted
Worsening ties: diplomatic ties between India and Pakistan have remained acrimonious for the past seven decades. The issue of Islamist terrorism has marred relations in the last few years, with New Delhi accusing Islamabad of backing Islamist jihadists to wage a war in India-administered Kashmir. India also blames Pakistan-based groups for launching terror attacks on Indian soil. Islamabad denies these claims
The way forward: many young people in both India and Pakistan are urging their governments to improve bilateral ties. Islamabad-based documentary filmmaker Wajahat Malik believes the best way for India and Pakistan to develop a closer relationship is through more interaction between their peoples. "Trade and tourism are the way forward for us. When people come together, the states will follow suit"
The dispute over Kashmir has bedevilled relations since their independence in 1947 and sparked two of their three wars.
India said on Sunday two soldiers and a civilian were killed in cross-border shelling in Kashmir while Pakistan said one of its soldiers and three civilians had been killed.
In February, they came close to war following a suicide bombing in Indian Kashmir that killed 40 paramilitary soldiers. In response, India launched an air strike on the Pakistani side and Pakistan shot down an Indian aircraft.
The new crossing will be inaugurated in early November, just before the 550th birthday of Sikhism's founder on 12 November, officials from both sides have said.
The shrine is about 4 km (2-1/2 miles) from the border. The crossing and corridor, including a road, bridge over the Ravi River and immigration office, will replace a drawn-out visa process and circuitous journey through Pakistan. But there is still disagreement over a $20 fee that Pakistan wants to charge each visitor.
India "has consistently urged Pakistan that in deference to the wishes of the pilgrims, it should not levy such a fee", India's foreign ministry said. (Reuters)