India stops Sikh pilgrims from attending Saka festival in Pakistan

Published February 19, 2021
In this file photo, Sikh devotees arrive at Wagah Railway Station. —APP/File
In this file photo, Sikh devotees arrive at Wagah Railway Station. —APP/File

LAHORE: India stopped on Thursday 720 Sikh pilgrims from attending the Saka festival being held in Pakistan from Feb 18 to 25, citing Covid-19 and “safety” reasons.

Pakistan criticised the Indian government decision, calling it a grave human rights violation.

“Sikh pilgrims were scheduled to enter Lahore via Wagah border and we all were there to welcome them, when we came to know that the Indian government has barred them from coming to Pakistan,” Pakistan Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (PGPC) Chief Sardar Satwant Singh told a press conference at Lahore Dera Sahib temple on Thursday.

“It is a blatant violation of human rights as it is the fundamental right of everyone to freely participate in religious festivals and events. We all condemn this act of Indian government widely.”

According to an official source, the Pakistan High Commission in New Dehli issued visas to 840 Sikh pilgrims on the request of Shirumani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (Sri Amritsar Sahib) -- a representative body of the Indian Sikh pilgrims. However, 720 of the total 840 confirmed their participation to the PGPC -- a representative committee of the Pakistani Sikh community that assists the Evacuee Trust Property Board (ETPB) and the government in organising the annual religious events/rituals in various parts of the country.

According to a letter by the Ministry of Home Affairs to the SGPC, the Indian government halted the pilgrims’ departure to Pakistan on the pretext of Covid-19 spread.

“This is with respect to a proposal by the SGPC to send a special Jatha (group) to Pakistan from Feb 18 to 25 to attend the 100th anniversary of ‘Saka Nankana Sahib’,” reads the letter issued by Avi Prakash of India’s home affairs ministry.

It states the recent inputs indicate a threat to the safety and security of Indian citizens visiting Pakistan. As the Jatha which may have nearly 600 members is scheduled to visit five Gurdwaras across Pakistan over a period of a week, we apprehend considerable threat to the safety of a large number of our citizens during this visit.

“You may also be aware that the traffic on India-Pakistan international border remains suspended since March 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic. While the pandemic continues to persist, it is pertinent to note that Pakistan has so far recorded over half a million cases with over 10,000 plus death due to Covid. Considering the capacity of health infrastructure in Pakistan, it is not advisable for a large group of our citizens to visit Pakistan for a week during the pandemic,” the letter written to SGPC President Bibi Jagir Kaur Begowal explains.

“In view of the factors mentioned above, the MHA has not accorded permission to the Jatha for crossing over to Pakistan, which was mandatory, in view of the ongoing suspension of cross border traffic due to Covid-19 pandemic,” it concludes.

Not impressed by the Indian statement, PGPC’s Pradhan Sardar Satwant Singh urged the UN and rights organisations to take notice of the human rights violations being committed by the Indian government with their citizens.

The ETPB administration said despite barring entry of Sikh pilgrims by the Indian government, the Saka celebrations/events would be held as per schedule.

Published in Dawn, February 19th, 2021

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