KARTARPUR, Pakistan – Contacts between India and Pakistan are “zero”, Pakistan’s foreign minister said, even as the old rivals prepared to open a border crossing for Indian pilgrims to visit a Sikh temple, one of their most significant acts of cooperation in decades.
The border crossing pact between the nuclear-armed neighbours allows 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.
Hundreds of Indian delegates including members of the opposition Congress Party are expected to cross the border for the Saturday ceremony, though Pakistani officials familiar with the guest list said there was no representation from India’s ruling Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party.
Despite the good news on the border crossing, Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi said 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 in the Pakistani city of Lahore late on Friday.
“For any sane mind, it is concerning.”
A spokesman for India’s foreign ministry did not respond to a request for comment.
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.
The Punjab region, the ancestral home of the Sikh faith, was split between India and Pakistan at independence.
Many Sikhs then migrated to India. Sikhs in India have sought easier access to holy sites in Pakistan ever since.
Visas to travel between the two countries often take months to process.
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.
Travellers at Wagah, previously the sole border crossing, have fallen to less than 100 daily in each direction this year, officials on both sides have told Reuters.
Pakistan cancelled the last remaining public transport links – a bus and two train services – running between the two countries in August.
Nov 9, 2019
Reporting by Alasdair Pal in Kartarpur; Editing by Alexandra Ulmer, Robert BirselOur Standards:The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.