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In goodwill gesture, Pakistan opens corridor to Sikh shrine for Indian pilgrims amid wider tensions

Indian Sikh pilgrims visit the Darbar Sahib Gurudwara shrine in Kartarpur, Pakistan, on Nov. 9. (Akhtar Soomro/Reuters)

KARTARPUR, Pakistan — Just being inside the Sikh temple in Pakistan brought him to tears.

Gurmukh Singh was born in Punjab before it was split in the partition of the subcontinent in 1947. He ended up on the Indian side. Now, decades later, he made his return Saturday with the opening of a road link between India and Pakistan.

“I did not think this was possible in my lifetime,” said 88-year-old Singh. “I hope this will bring the two countries together.”

The historic cross-border road opening marks a rare moment of cooperation in the hostile relationship between the two nuclear-armed countries that nearly went to war again earlier this year. For the first time, Sikh pilgrims will be able to travel visa-free to a major holy shrine in Pakistan via the Kartarpur corridor inaugurated by Prime Minister Imran Khan on Saturday.

“We believe that the road to prosperity of region and bright future of our coming generation lies in peace,” Khan said.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi thanked Khan while seeing off the first batch of pilgrims from the Indian side: “He understood India’s feelings on the Kartarpur Corridor issue, gave respect and, keeping in view those feelings, worked accordingly.”

The temple, Darbar Sahib Gurudwara, is one of the holiest shrines for the Sikh community in India, but has not been easy to reach for Indians. They could either fly to Lahore or cross via a checkpoint on the main road between Lahore and Amritsar, India. But both routes require visas.

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Tuesday will mark the 550th birthday of Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism. Guru Nanak spent the last years of his life in Kartarpur, about 2.5 miles from the Indian border northeast of Lahore. The border near the temple, however, has remain closed for the past 72 years since the two countries were created during a bloody partition that displaced millions.

This year the strained ties frayed further.

In August, Pakistan downgraded diplomatic ties, suspending trade and travel from India. A few days earlier, India revoked the semiautonomous status of Kashmir, bringing it under direct central rule. Parts of the disputed Himalayan region are controlled by each country, and both claim the region in its entirety. For the first time in the history of the two countries, postal services were also suspended.

Another flash point came earlier this year: an attack on a security convoy by a suicide bomber, killing at least 38 personnel in Indian-administered Kashmir. The attack was traced back to a Pakistan-based terror group.

In the aftermath, India and Pakistan engaged in their first aerial dogfight in decades, resulting in the capture of an Indian pilot. Pakistan subsequently released the pilot as a gesture of peace marking a de-escalation.

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The opening of the corridor for Sikh pilgrims has sparked hopes for more overtures between the two countries. Upkar Singh, 55, traveled from his home in London to fulfill his grandfather’s wish to visit the temple.

“This is our motherland,” Singh said. “This corridor has broken barriers and united people from all religions.”

The sentiment was echoed by the ecstatic Sikh community gathered on the grounds of the pristine white complex. Devotees lined up to bow down at a marble casket inside a small carpeted complex. Some cried, others said they felt at peace at realizing their long-standing dream. Besides those from India, Sikhs from Britain, Australia and United States came to mark the occasion.

But the path ahead for India and Pakistan remains thorny.

“There cannot be a bilateral engagement at this stage,” said Shah Mahmood Qureshi, Pakistan’s foreign minister, citing the Kashmir issue.

Pakistan has repeatedly raised, what it calls, the suspension of human rights in Kashmir at international forums. India has maintained that Kashmir is an internal issue and relations with Pakistan can only improve if it cracks down on terror groups that have often targeted India.

For 45-year-old Ravinder Bedi from Amritsar in the Indian side of Punjab, politics didn’t matter today. She hoped that the opening of the corridor will facilitate exchange between the two countries. “We are the same people, divided by a border,” said Bedi.

Shaiq Hussain in Islamabad contributed to this report.

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