ISLAMABAD: Despite tensions running high over Kashmir, Pakistan and India are set to sign the agreement that would govern the operations of the visa-free Kartarpur Corridor for Indian Sikh pilgrims.
Foreign Office Spokesman Dr Muhammad Faisal, while speaking to Dawn, confirmed that an agreement had been reached on the draft and the two sides would be signing it soon. He said “the dates for signing of the accord were being worked out”.
Indian Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) had earlier in the day said in a media statement that the Indian government had conveyed its readiness “to sign the Agreement on Kartarpur Sahib Corridor on 23 October 2019”.
The details of the agreement had been under negotiation since March. The first round of talks was held on March 14 at the Indian side of Attari-Wagah border. Alongside the officials’ level talks, both side held several rounds of expert level meetings to discuss technical aspects of the project.
Facility for pilgrims is scheduled to be opened on Nov 9
There have so far been three rounds of officials’ level talks.
The two sides, during their negotiations, kept on differing over various issues ranging from number of pilgrims to the number of days the corridor would remain open and the composition of Pakistan Sikh Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee (PSGPC), which had been set up to facilitate Sikh pilgrims.
The last sticking point was the $20 service fee Pakistan has decided to charge from every Sikh pilgrim using the corridor.
Dr Faisal said that the issue had been resolved.
But, MEA in its statement looked to have reluctantly accepted the fee as it urged Pakistan to review it.
“It is a matter of disappointment that while understanding has been reached on most of the elements for facilitating the visit of pilgrims from India, Pakistan continues to insist on levying a service fee of USD 20 per pilgrim per visit,” MEA said in its statement.
It further said: “While agreeing to sign the agreement, the Government of Pakistan has been once again urged to reconsider its insistence to levy service fee on pilgrims. India would be ready to amend the agreement accordingly at any time.”
Sikh leaders in India also expressed their disappointment over the visa fee. Union Minister Harsimrat Kaur Badal called it “shameful” and in a video posted on social media accused the Pakistan government of “doing business on faith” and using the fee for “boosting economy”.
Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh, who looked polite, meanwhile, tweeted: “I appeal to @ImranKhanPTI to withdraw $20 fee imposed by @pid_gov on pilgrims to Kartarpur Sahib to faciliate [sic] *‘khulle darshan deedar’* of the final resting place of SRI Guru Nanak Dev Ji. The world Sikh community will be grateful to you for this gesture.”
The corridor, which would provide visa-free access to Indian Sikh pilgrims to Kartarpur Gurdwara, is scheduled to be opened on Nov 9 ahead of the 550th birth anniversary of Guru Nanak Dev Ji falling on Nov 12. Former Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh was invited to the inaugural ceremony but he only agreed to come over as an ordinary pilgrim.
The groundbreaking ceremony of the corridor was performed in November last year after Delhi agreed to a Pakistani proposal for providing Indian Sikhs visa-free access to the Gurdwara in Kartarpur Sahib.
Up to 5,000 Sikh pilgrims can use the Corridor on any day to perform pilgrimage.
Published in Dawn, October 22nd, 2019