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The Union cabinet headed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Thursday approved the construction of a “corridor" linking India with the historic Kartarpur gurdwara in Pakistan—a move likely aimed at wooing Sikhs ahead of the 2019 national polls.

The corridor will commemorate the 550th birth anniversary of Guru Nanak Dev, the founder of Sikhism, who spent the last 18 years of his life in Kartarpur and died there. Kartarpur was the first gurdwara ever built.

With 13 Lok Sabha seats at stake in Punjab and a few in New Delhi dominated by Sikhs, the Kartarpur corridor is expected to become an important poll plank for the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government. However, hopes that the corridor could also open the door for a possible thaw in ties between India and Pakistan seemed somewhat premature, after an exchange of words erupted over who first approved the opening of the corridor.

The corridor will connect the holy shrines of Dera Baba Nanak Sahib in Gurdaspur district of Punjab in India with Gurdwara Darbar Sahib in Kartarpur in Pakistan. It will allow Indian devotees to travel to Kartarpur in Pakistan’s Narowal district, which lies only 3km from the Indian side of the border. Until now, most Indian devotees have had to contend with a darshan using binoculars installed at Dera Baba Nanak Sahib.

Welcoming the decision, Amarjit Singh Tikka, co-ordinator (India), United Sikh Mission, the organization which has been flagging the project since 2005, said it was a “historic decision and we welcome efforts of both governments". Punjab chief minister Capt. Amarinder Singh hailed the decision saying it would help lakhs of pilgrims.

Indian foreign ministry spokesman Raveesh Kumar said India had “approached and urged the Pakistan government to recognize the sentiments of Sikh community and build a corridor with suitable facilities in their territory to facilitate easy and smooth visits of pilgrims from India to Kartarpur Sahib throughout the year. The government of India has already decided to build the corridor from Dera Baba Nanak to the International Border with all modern amenities on our side".

In Pakistan, federal information minister Chaudhry Fawad Hussain tweeted: “Indian Cabinet endorsement of Pakistan’s proposition on #KartarPurBorderOpening is victory of peace lobby in both countries, it’s a step towards right direction and we hope such steps will encourage voice of reasons and tranquillity on both sides of the border."

Pakistan foreign minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi in a Twitter post seemed to trigger an exchange of words. “Pakistan has already conveyed to India its decision to open Kartarpura Corridor for Baba Guru Nanak’s 550th birth anniversary. PM Imran Khan will do break ground at Kartarpura facilities on 28th November. We welcome the Sikh community to Pakistan for this auspicious occasion."

Two people familiar with the developments in India contradicted Qureshi saying suggestions that “the corridor or the celebrations are being planned as a response to a Pakistani proposal is not only preposterous, but hurtful to the sentiments of the Sikh community".

“It may be remembered that the proposal is a demand from the Indian side for more than 20 years. It is Pakistan that has refused to acknowledge the request," one of the two people cited above said, adding the corridor must allow maximum movement and throughout the year.

The corridor is likely to become a major poll plank for the general elections, with both the Congress and BJP-SAD alliance set to take credit for it.

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