LAHORE: The Indian government on Wednesday stopped over 300 Sikh pilgrims, who were due to attend the death anniversary of Maharaja Ranjeet Singh, from crossing over to Pakistan, citing refusal by the External Affairs Ministry to clear their names.

The pilgrims, who had reached Atari early in the morning — a bordering railway station from where they are picked up by the Pakistan Railways — protested against the Indian government and some violence was also reported.

Chairman of the Evacuee Trust Property Board (ETPB) Siddiqul Farooq kept trying for six hours talking to the Indian embassy in Pakistan but in vain. Frustrated, he held a press conference in the afternoon to allege “fundamentalism is creeping into Indian state institutions”.

The Indian government has refused pilgrims a second time in June alone. On June 8, it disallowed over 200 visitors for Shaheedi Jor Mela — celebrations for the fifth Guru of the Sikh religion. After some hectic efforts, only 14 were allowed to cross the border on foot.

“Given the stubbornness of the Indian government, the fear now is about November when birthday celebrations of Baba Guru Nanak are due,” says an ETPB official. That is the holiest pilgrimage for the Sikh community and a big event for Pakistan. In all probability, those celebrations were in danger — at least for the Indian Sikh community, he feared.

ETPB chairman Siddiqul Farooq said: “While Pakistan is routinely accused of fundamentalism, none of its state organ has acted in such a manner. By stopping the yatrees, the Indian ministry has also violated the UN charter, which forbids a decision hurting religious feeling. This visit was purely religious and should not have been hampered.”

Tara Singh, head of the Pakistan Sikh Gurudwara Prabandhak Committee, was present at the press conference.

Mr Farooq said Pakistan had gone an extra mile in facilitating the visitors. “Though the agreement binds the visitors to apply for a visa at least 45 days before the visit, applications that arrived only five days before the visit were entertained. The Pakistan High Commission issued over 300 visas and the ETPB held meetings with 34 departments to finalise arrangements for the visit. The Indian side kept us and pilgrims waiting for more than six hours. But all ended up in vain,” he regretted.

“The entire staff of the board was at the border to receive them. I myself travelled from Islamabad to Lahore to welcome the yatrees. A train from Pakistan Railways was waiting at the Zero Line to fetch the visitors. The situation unfolded only when the pilgrims were stopped and the Pakistani side tried to find a way out. I have never travelled abroad in the last three years, but now I plan to go to India and try to convince people concerned there. On its part, Pakistan has also inducted four Yatra promoters from the private sector to facilitate visitors from all over the world,” he concluded.

Published in Dawn, June 29th, 2017

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