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Thursday, Aug 22, 2019

At Kartarpur talks, Pak agrees to bridge divide

The two countries plan to open the corridor for Guru Nanak’s 550th birth anniversary on November 12, when millions of Sikh devotees from across the world are expected to throng the holy sites.

india Updated: Jul 15, 2019 07:27 IST
HT Correspondents
HT Correspondents
Hindustan Times, New Delhi/Amritsar
The corridor will link the shrine of Dera Baba Nanak in India’s Punjab to Pakistan’s Gurdwara Darbar Sahib at Kartarpur, the final resting place of Sikhism’s founder Guru Nanak.  (Sameer Sehgal/HT Photo)
The corridor will link the shrine of Dera Baba Nanak in India’s Punjab to Pakistan’s Gurdwara Darbar Sahib at Kartarpur, the final resting place of Sikhism’s founder Guru Nanak. (Sameer Sehgal/HT Photo)
         

The landmark Kartarpur corridor cleared major hurdles on Sunday after Pakistan agreed, in principle, to India’s requests of building a bridge across the river Ravi, visa-free travel for Sikh pilgrims, and an increase in the daily number of devotees, as both countries narrowed bilateral differences and committed to opening the 4.7km stretch by November.

The corridor will link the shrine of Dera Baba Nanak in India’s Punjab to Pakistan’s Gurdwara Darbar Sahib at Kartarpur, the final resting place of Sikhism’s founder Guru Nanak. The two countries plan to open the corridor for Guru Nanak’s 550th birth anniversary on November 12, when millions of Sikh devotees from across the world are expected to throng the holy sites.

Pakistan is building the corridor from the Indian border to the Gurdwara Darbar Sahib while the section from Dera Baba Nanak up to the border is being constructed by India.

At the secretary-level talks held on the Pakistani side of the Attari-Wagah border on Sunday, India also conveyed its concerns about pro-Khalistan operatives in Pakistan getting access to pilgrims, prompting an assurance from Islamabad that no “anti-India activity” will be allowed.

“We have been able to narrow down the differences since the first meeting held on March 14. Our technical teams will meet further to ensure seamless connectivity. Details will be further worked out,” said home ministry joint secretary (internal security) SCL Das, who led the Indian delegation.

India and Pakistan have agreed to maintain “a channel of communication” to quickly finalise the “agreement on Kartarpur Sahib Corridor,” a home ministry statement added.

Pakistan Foreign Office spokesperson Mohammad Faisal, who was leading the Pakistani delegation, said there was positive progress in the corridor talks. “ Both countries have agreed 80% and beyond regarding the Kartarpur corridor agreement,” he said, adding that the two sides would resolve the remaining 20% issues in the next meeting.

“This is a corridor of peace and we have planted a sapling of peace,” he added, reiterating Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan’s “commitment” to opening the corridor in time for the 550th birth anniversary celebrations of Guru Nanak.

The corridor was first proposed two decades ago and foundation stones laid on both sides of the border in November 2018. Currently, pilgrims can catch a glimpse of the Gurdwara Darbar Sahib with the naked eye from an elevated platform on the Indian side.

In the March meeting, a big sticking point in the discussions was Pakistan’s refusal to build a bridge over the Ravi and its flood plains, which act as the so-called “zero line” or de-facto international border in some spots, and its insistence on building a causeway or embankment which New Delhi argued would cause floods.

On Sunday, India shared a detailed flood report and details of the bridge being built on the Indian side. “It was clearly conveyed that an earth-filled embankment or a causeway will create problems for our people and should not be built even in the interim,” said an Indian official on condition of anonymity.

“Details of the bridge that India is building on its side were shared, and the Pakistan side was urged to also build a bridge on their side. This would not only address the flooding related concerns, but also ensure smooth, hassle free, all-weather pilgrimage… Pakistan side agreed, in principle, to build a bridge at the earliest,” the home ministry statement added.

New Delhi was concerned that flooding of the Ravi plains would restrict the movement of devotees to only a few months in a year. Until the bridge is constructed, India offered to make interim arrangements for all-weather connectivity. “The bridge over the zero-line will take time to come up, but there is an in-principle agreement,” said a senior official who did not want to be named.

Pakistan also agreed on three more contentious issues; allowing visa-free travel for Indian passport holders, allowing devotees who hold an Overseas Citizenship of India card (OCI) to travel, and fixing the number of pilgrims allowed daily at 5,000 (Pakistan earlier had indicated it only had capacity to accommodate around 700), the statement by the home ministry said. The two nations agreed that Pilgrims would be allowed to travel as individuals or in groups, and on foot. Earlier, Islamabad was reluctant to let pilgrims walk to the gurdwara.

India reiterated its demand of allowing 10,000 pilgrims on special occasions such as gurpurabs (special days related to Sikh gurus). Das said Pakistan indicated that it would consider this demand based on available capacity.

The Sunday talks come after months of heightened bilateral tensions following an attack in February on a defence convoy in Pulwama, which killed 40 soldiers, and retaliatory air strikes by India on terror targets in Balakot weeks later. New Delhi called off a meeting scheduled for April 2 over the inclusion of pro-Khalistan activists such as Gopal Chawla and Bisan Singh in a Pakistani committee to facilitate Sikh pilgrims. Pakistan dropped Chawla from its team after New Delhi’s objection.

In the meeting, India also handed over a dossier to highlight concerns about extremists spreading propaganda about Khalistan, which centres around a demand for secession from India and a separate Sikh homeland.

“The importance for ensuring safe and secure environment for the pilgrims was underscored. In this context, concerns regarding individuals or organisations based in Pakistan who may try to disrupt the pilgrimage and misuse the opportunity to play with the sentiments of the pilgrims were shared,” said Das. The Indian delegation also sought consular presence in Kartarpur but received no assurance on the subject.

Technical experts of the two sides have so far held three rounds of discussions at the border to try and finalise the corridor’s alignment, crossing point and infrastructure.

Following the decision made by the Cabinet on November 22 last year to open the corridor as part of measures to celebrate Guru Nanak’s birth anniversary, India has been building the infrastructure for the corridor, including a four-lane highway and a passenger terminal – which are expected to be completed in three months.

India also raised the issue of encroachment of the land belonging to the Gurdwara at the meeting and asked Pakistan to restore this land to the gurdwara. Separately, India asked Pakistan to allow a ‘Nagar Kirtan’ (religious procession) from Delhi to Nankana Sahib in Pakistan in July 2019 and then later November 2019 as proposed by Sikh religious bodies.

Punjab chief minister Amarinder Singh welcomed the developments but added that the daily quota of pilgrims needed to be raised further. In a statement, Singh hoped that the Indian government would press Pakistan to accept other demands, being raised by him over the past several months.

“It appears to be a positive development. It will be difficult for Pakistan to go back on the commitments made. And also, they are likely to use this as an image-building exercise. They are also likely to use to try and project it as having cooperated with and given India what it wanted,” said international relations expert and former Indian ambassador to Kazakhstan, Sweden and Latvia, Ashok Sajjanhar.

First Published: Jul 15, 2019 00:43 IST

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