India's refusal to issue visas to over 500 Pakistani pilgrims seeking to attend an annual Muslim religious festival has added to an uptick of tension between the two arch rivals. The March 19 denial of visas to 503 Pakistanis wanting to visit the shrine of a Sufi saint in Ajmer, Rajasthan, came as armies from both sides traded fire in disputed Kashmir
over several days beginning March 18. Ten people — five members of a family in India-controlled Kashmir and five Indian soldiers — were killed. The high commission in New Delhi said the pilgrims could not visit due to an absence of requisite security clearances and in view of prevailing circumstances. Pakistan's foreign ministry condemned the decision and said such visits are an effort to bring communities closer together. The ministry said the pilgrims should be permitted as per the 1974 India-Pakistan protocol which allows visits to places of religious significance. Tanveer Ahmad, a political activist based in Kashmir, said the denial of visas is tantamount to stopping a person from his religious obligations. "Come what may, religion should not have been dragged into the entire rivalry between the two countries," said Ahmad. A.C. Michael, a Catholic leader and former member of the Delhi Minorities Commission, said the Indian government has to rise above sectarian and religious lines. Michael added that India has also been accused of making it difficult for Pakistanis wanting to come to India for medical reasons by insisting they get a letter from Pakistan's foreign office as part of their application. "They shouldn't be denied a visa too. I believe that is more important than anything," Michael said. Pakistan has also been behaving improperly and interfering with India's internal matters, he added. The Indian government has accused Pakistan of violating a ceasefire agreement the countries signed in 2003. India also often accuses Pakistan of supporting an insurgency
in the Indian-controlled part of Kashmir, an allegation Pakistan denies. India's Defense Minister Nirmala Sitharaman told parliament on March 5 that there were at least 209 ceasefire violations in January by Pakistan's military along the Line of Control
, the army-demarcated border between India and Pakistan. There were 142 violations in the first 12 days of February. "The casualties in January 2018 alone equaled the figures for entire 2017. And 2017 itself was an exceptional year for ceasefire violations, as it saw a six-fold increase from 2015," the minister said.