Pakistan’s prime minister Imran Khan has used the opening of a new border crossing for Sikh pilgrims to try to relaunch a push for better ties with estranged neighbour India.
In a rare moment of recent co-operation, the nuclear-armed rivals met on Wednesday to lay the foundations of a new crossing allowing visa-free access to a Sikh holy site just inside Pakistan.
The former cricketer claimed he, his party and the powerful Pakistani military that India accuses of sabotaging former peace efforts, all wanted to mend ties.
“We wish to move forward, we want a civilised relationship. We have just one problem, Kashmir. If man can walk on the moon, what problems are there that we cannot resolve,” Mr Khan said in a speech to open the long-awaited crossing at Kartarpur.
Addressing India, Mr Khan restated an earlier claim that “if India takes one step forward then we will take two steps forward toward friendship”.
Navjot Singh Sidhu, a cricketing contemporary of Mr Khan and now tourism minister of India’s border state of Punjab, echoed his calls for progress.
“Both the governments should realise that we have to move forward,” he said.
But hours before the foundation stone was laid, Delhi apparently made clear it would rebuff Mr Khan's overtures, saying there could be no dialogue until Pakistan stopped terrorist activities in India.
India also said it would not attend a regional summit to be hosted in Pakistan.
Diplomatic sources say Indian leaders believe it is too politically risky to let down their guard and engage in peace talks so close to next spring’s general election. They have in the past accused elements of Pakistan’s military of sabotaging peace efforts with militant attacks.
Khawaja Muhammad Asif, former Pakistani foreign minister, said the opening was “a good gesture for peace in the subcontinent”. But he said India appeared to be downplaying the event.
“Such initiatives must bring dividends, I am afraid not in this case,” he said.
The opening of a border corridor crossing for pilgrims to visit the Gurdwara Darbar Sahib shrine at Kartarpur has been under discussion for three decades, only to be postponed as the neighbours lurched from crisis to crisis.
The shrine marks where Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism, spent more than 18 years until his death. Pakistan has said the 4km-long corridor will be complete for the 550th anniversary next year of his birth.
Mr Khan wrote to his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi in September in an attempt to revive ties, suggesting that their foreign ministers meet on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly.
But his olive branch was rejected and the initiative quickly descended into acrimony. India attacked Pakistan’s “evil agenda”, while Mr Khan retaliated by calling Mr Modi a “small man” who lacked vision.
Pakistan and India have fought three wars since they gained independence from Britain in 1947. Their main dispute is over Kashmir, which they both claim in full but rule in part.