LAHORE: Pakistan has agreed to allow 5,000 Sikh pilgrims from India to visit on a daily basis the Gurdwara Darbar Sahib in Narowal through the Kartarpur corridor, which is scheduled to be opened in November.
This was announced on Wednesday after the third round of talks between Pakistan and India on a draft agreement on the corridor held in Attari.
Dr Mohammad Faisal, the Foreign Office spokesperson and Director General for South Asia, led the Pakistani delegation while the Indian team was headed by S.C.L Das, a joint secretary in the home affairs department.
After the meeting, Dr Faisal told reporters at the Wagah border that the talks were held in a positive environment despite prevailing tensions between the two countries over the situation in occupied Kashmir.
“It was a productive meeting. We agreed on many things... We have overcome many obstacles as per the prime minister’s initiative and we are inching closer to opening the corridor in November,” he said.
“There are two to three sticking points and we are hopeful they will also be sorted out as India needs to show a little more flexibility,” Dr Faisal said, adding that Indian officials had been invited for the final round of talks on the remaining issues.
He ruled out another meeting of technical experts, saying “technical matters do not require further discussion”.
In reply to a question, the spokesperson for the Foreign Office said: “Pakistan has agreed on 5,000 pilgrims’ visit to Kartarpur daily. However, if the number of visitors exceeds that number, we will welcome all of them.”
Dr Faisal said that since Sikhs from countries other than India would also be visiting Kartarpur Sahib, there would be an issue of capacity. “We may accommodate more than 5,000 Sikh yatrees from India provided we have the required capacity,” he said, adding that limiting the number of pilgrims in the initial phase would be necessary due to capacity constraints.
He said that Sikhs from India would return to their country the same day. A bridge had been built on the site and Indian pilgrims would enter the corridor aboard buses.
“Sikh yatrees will enter through a gate at the Kartarpur crossing and the entry will take place on the basis of cards rather than visas. Several immigration counters of the Federal Investigation Agency will be set up for the purpose,” he said.
Dr Faisal said media persons would be allowed to visit the corridor soon, enabling them to assess for themselves the construction work carried out so far.
In reply to another question, he said 90 per cent of the work had been completed and Pakistan would open the corridor in November on the occasion of the 550th birth anniversary of Baba Guru Nanak. “India is responsible for doing its part of the work while the work on our side is almost complete.”
The FO spokesperson said Pakistan had handed over a dossier to the Indian officials. “India gave us a dossier and we also handed over a dossier to them in the meeting,” he said, but refused to share information about the contents.
Dr Faisal said: “Pakistan has decided to open the corridor on the wish of the Sikh community. Prime Minister Imran Khan has taken the initiative for the minority community of India,” he added.
The Foreign Office also issued a statement, which said Pakistan would allow visa-free access to pilgrims of all faiths, seven days a week, throughout the year at the corridor. “Pilgrims may travel individually or in groups and by bus or foot, as per their convenience. It was agreed that an identification card will be issued by Pakistan to the visiting pilgrims.
“Pilgrims will be charged a nominal amount as service charges for the upkeep / maintenance of the Gurdwara Sahib. A joint working group will be constituted by the parties for facilitating a smooth implementation of the agreement,” said the statement.
It added that Prime Minister Khan’s announcement about visa-free access to pilgrims was a testament to Pakistan’s sincerity and commitment to facilitating them. “Visa-free access to pilgrims precludes the need for consular officers from India. Rhetoric for public consumption is damaging. In view of the paucity of time and the impending deadline of the 550th celebrations, Pakistan proposed that the next round of meeting be held at the earliest, preferably next week, to finalise the draft agreement.”
Published in Dawn, September 5th, 2019