November 9, 2019 / 1:17 PM / 2 days ago

India, Pakistan contacts at 'zero' despite border cooperation

KARTARPUR, Pakistan (Reuters) - Contacts between India and Pakistan are “zero”, Pakistan’s foreign minister said, even as a border crossing opened on Saturday for Indian pilgrims to visit a Sikh temple in one of the most significant acts of cooperation in decades by the old rivals.

Indian Sikh pilgrims visit the Gurdwara Darbar Sahib in Kartarpur, Pakistan November 9, 2019. REUTERS/Akhtar Soomro

The border crossing pact between the neighbours allows visa-free access from India to the Pakistani town of Kartarpur, home to a temple marking the site where the founder of Sikhism, Guru Nanak, died.

Hundreds of Indians including members of the opposition Congress Party crossed the border for opening ceremony, though there was no representation from India’s ruling Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party. Prime Minister Narendra Modi held his own ceremony over the border in India.

“The founder of Sikhism was born here. This is our real home,” said Surpreet Singh, a 32-year-old pilgrim from New Delhi on his first visit to Pakistan.

“I have wanted to come here for a long time. The people here are very friendly - they are familiar to us,” he added as Pakistani and Indian Sikhs, who wore different lanyards, mingled inside the temple complex.

Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan said in a statement the border crossing pact was a “testimony of our commitment towards peace of the region”.

However, Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi said on Friday relations had not been as strained as they are now since the two sides battled on their border for months in the northern area of Kargil in 1999.

“There is no back-channel. We’ve had wars, things have been worse than this, but things are bad,” Qureshi told Reuters in an interview late on Friday.

An Indian foreign ministry spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.

The Punjab region, the ancestral home of the Sikh faith, was split between India and Pakistan at independence. Many Sikhs then migrated to India but have sought easier access to holy sites in Pakistan ever since.

The two countries hope that when fully operational, some 5,000 pilgrims will be able to cross into Pakistan every day through the new checkpoint, a huge increase on current numbers.

India and Pakistan have fought three wars since independence from Britain in 1947. They came close to a fourth in February after a suicide bomb attack by a Pakistan-based militant group killed scores of Indian paramilitary police in the Indian part of the disputed Kashmir region, which both countries claim.

Relations have been especially tense since August, when India stripped autonomy and statehood from its portion of Kashmir. Pakistan reacted by cutting trade and transport ties and expelling India’s ambassador.

Reporting by Alasdair Pal in Kartarpur; Editing by Alexandra Ulmer, Robert Birsel and Frances Kerry

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