By the Associated Press
NEW DELHI — India and Pakistan signed a long-awaited visa-free border crossing agreement on Thursday allowing Indian Sikhs to easily visit a shrine in Pakistan, a rare instance of cooperation between the countries amid heightened tensions over Kashmir.
The agreement was signed at a border crossing in India’s northern Punjab province, where about 80% of India’s nearly 25 million Sikhs live. Sikhs are an influential minority in India.
Instead of visas, the two countries will issue special permits allowing pilgrims to access the shrine through a special corridor created on both sides of the border.
Pakistan, however, did not accept India’s suggestion that it waive a $20 service charge to be paid by each pilgrim.
“This is a very nominal charge,” Pakistan foreign ministry spokesman Mohammad Faisal said.
Sikh founder Guru Nanak settled in what is now Pakistan’s Kartarpur. The shrine was built after he died in the 16th century.
Many Sikh holy sites became part of Pakistan after the British partitioned the subcontinent into India and Pakistan in 1947 after two centuries of colonial rule.
The shrine is visible from the Indian side of the border, and Sikhs often gather on bluffs to view the site from India.
Ties between the hostile neighbors deteriorated sharply after India revoked the disputed Kashmir region’s semi-autonomous status in early August.
Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan will inaugurate the corridor on Nov. 9, Faisal said. Around 5,000 Sikh pilgrims are expected to be allowed to visit the shrine every day.
Faisal, who signed the agreement for Pakistan, told reporters that his country’s position on the Kashmir issue will remain unchanged, suggesting that there has been no thaw in relations between the two sides.
Kashmir is divided between India and Pakistan but is claimed by both. The two countries have fought two wars over control of the region.
In the 1980s, India crushed an insurgency in Punjab state in which Sikh separatists fought for an independent homeland.
India accused Pakistan of supporting the Sikh rebels, which Islamabad denied.