In a move described as akin to the fall of the Berlin Wall, politicians in both Pakistan and India have ceremonially broken ground for a "Peace Corridor" crossing the border in the divided Punjab region.
The 4-6km corridor, described as a walkway, has been mooted since 1988 and will finally allow thousands of Sikh worshippers visa-free access to an eminent shrine, the Gurdwara Darbar Sahib in Pakistan’s Kartarpur (pictured).
It is was built starting in 1539 at the final resting place of Sikhism’s founder, Guru Nanak, who died there that year.
On the Pakistani side, Prime Minister Imran Khan today broke ground, surrounded by top ministers, while over the border, India’s Vice President M Venkaiah Naidu laid the foundation stone for the Indian stretch, which starts in Dera Baba Nanak in India’s Gurdaspur district, on Monday, 26 November.
Both nuclear-armed, Pakistan and India have fought three wars since Partition in 1947, so the long-delayed move to start the corridor was hailed as a step toward peace.
India’s prime minister Narendra Modi compared it to the falling of the Berlin Wall in 1989.
"Had anyone thought the Berlin Wall would fall? Maybe with the blessings of Nanak the Kartarpur corridor will not remain just a corridor, but will act as a bridge between the two countries" he said, according to a report from New Delhi carried by The Irish Times.
Reports say the plan for the corridor was revived in September by Imran Khan, who took office as prime minister in August after winning the general election.
Pakistan will open the corridor by the Guru Nanak’s 550th birth anniversary in November next year, reports newspaper, Dawn.
If the corridor plan is not derailed by escalating tensions before then, Sikhs will be able to walk directly to the shrine over the Ravi River, instead of applying for visas and taking a 200km round trip. Currently, many Sikhs in India settle for prayerful observation of the shrine through binoculars at a designated facility.
In a sign that the corridor’s ceremonial beginning is no cure-all for tensions between the countries, India’s external affairs minister, Ms. Sushma Swaraj, today said India would not attend the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation conference if Pakistan hosts it.
"Until and unless Pakistan stops terrorist activities in India, there will be no dialogue and we will not participate in [the conference]," she said, Dawn reports.
Her refusal to attend means Pakistan will not be able to hold the event for the third year running, since participation of all member states is needed to convene the summit.
Swaraj also declined Pakistan’s invitation to attend today’s groundbreaking in Pakistan, as did Punjab chief minister, Amarinder Singh. But in careful diplomatic choreography, the Indian ministers for food and housing did cross over to attend.
Image: The eminent shrine, Gurdwara Darbar Sahib, at the final resting place of Sikhism’s founder, Guru Nanak, who died there in 1539 (Xubayr Mayo/Creative Commons/CC BY-SA 3.0)