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Thursday, Nov 14, 2019

Kartarpur to open for pilgrims today amid last-minute snarls

India and Pakistan will inaugurate separate sections of the corridor linking Dera Baba Nanak in India’s Gurdaspur to Durbar Sahib gurdwara in Pakistan’s Kartarpur today.

india Updated: Nov 09, 2019 05:14 IST
Rezaul H Laskar and Imtiaz Ahmad
Rezaul H Laskar and Imtiaz Ahmad
Hindustan Times, New Delhi/Islamabad
A view of Gurdwara Kartarpur Sahib in Pakistan on Friday, 8 November 2019.
A view of Gurdwara Kartarpur Sahib in Pakistan on Friday, 8 November 2019. (PTI)
         

A day before its opening, confusion and controversy swirled around the Kartarpur Corridor on Friday, with Indian officials blaming this on actions by Pakistani authorities, including the withdrawal and reinstatement of the waiver of a service fee for pilgrims.

The two countries will inaugurate separate sections of the corridor linking Dera Baba Nanak in India’s Gurdaspur to Durbar Sahib gurdwara in Pakistan’s Kartarpur on Saturday. Indian authorities acknowledge the corridor offers a faint hope for improving the atmosphere, but continue to be apprehensive about the project being leveraged by Pakistani elements to fan separatism in Punjab.

On Friday, the corridor was embroiled in a fresh controversy as reports emerged of an exhibit at the shrine featuring an Indian bomb purportedly dropped on the gurdwara — where Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism, spent the last 18 years of his life — during the 1971 war.

There was also confusion as Pakistan’s foreign office first said Prime Minister Imran Khan’s decision to waive the $20 service fee for Indian pilgrims on November 9 and 12 had been withdrawn, and then announced the waiver would be implemented on the two days. “PM Imran Khan had also announced waiver of service charges of US$20 on 9 and 12 November 2019. Abiding by the PM’s commitment, Pakistan will not receive any service charge from pilgrims on these two dates,” foreign office spokesman Mohammad Faisal tweeted.

Pakistan foreign minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi ended the confusion later and said that Pakistan will not charge the service fee from pilgrims visiting on November 9 and 12.

Faisal also sought to blame India for “creating confusion” and tweeted that New Delhi had refused “concessions” offered by Islamabad, but people familiar with the developments said it was Pakistan that had created uncertainty by trying to unilaterally abrogate the bilateral agreement on the corridor signed on October 24.

“They never made a formal proposal but announced things unilaterally, through a tweet. Then the Pakistani military’s media wing said something different,” said a person who declined to be named, referring to the Pakistani premier’s tweet of November 1 that said Sikh pilgrims could travel without passports and without registering 10 days before their planned visit.

Under the agreement, passports and registering on an online portal are mandatory for travelling through the corridor.

The people cited above said India had taken a consistent position that the provisions of the bilateral agreement should prevail till they are amended through mutual consent to avoid confusion among the pilgrims.

“If Pakistan is really sincere towards the pilgrims, they should do away with the $20 fee, which is acting as a deterrent for many pilgrims, especially those from the lower economic strata,” said a second person who too declined to be named.

According to some Indians who were part of a private group that recently visited the Durbar Sahib gurdwara, Pakistani authorities had created an exhibit featuring a small bomb that was purportedly dropped on the shrine by the Indian Air Force during the 1971 war.

The bomb has been placed in a glass case atop a small pillar decorated with the ‘khanda’, a symbol representing the Sikh faith. A board erected next to the pillar has a description that reads “Miracle of Waheguruji”.

It states: “Indian Air Force dropped this Bomb during 1971 at Gurdwara Darbar Sahib Sri Kartarpur Sahib with the aim to destroy it. However, this evil design could not be materialised due to blessing of Waheguru Ji. The said bomb landed into Sri Khoo Sahib (Sacred Well) and this Darbar Sahib remained unheart. It is pertinent to mention that this is the same sacred well from where Sri Guru Nanak Dev Ji used to get water to irrigate his fields.”

There was no immediate response from Indian officials on the exhibit.

However, people familiar with planning for the corridor said the exhibit appeared to be part of Pakistan’s efforts to fan separatist sentiments in India’s Punjab state and to drive a wedge between Sikhs and other communities.

Government officials had earlier said the Kartarpur Corridor, being opened as part of celebrations marking the 550th birth anniversary of Guru Nanak, serves a “strategic purpose” for forces in Pakistan that want to boost pro-Khalistan elements.

The renovation and expansion of Durbar Sahib gurdwara was carried out by the Frontier Works Organisation, the Pakistan Army’s military engineering unit, and the people cited above said the exhibit could be the handiwork of elements in the military.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi will inaugurate the Indian section of the corridor while his Pakistani counterpart will open the section on the other side. The inaugural ‘jatha’, or batch of some 600 pilgrims, includes about 150 dignitaries and VVIPs, including former premier Manmohan Singh, Punjab chief minister Amarinder Singh, MPs, lawmakers from Punjab and religious leaders.

The number of pilgrims visiting Durbar Sahib gurdwara on the inaugural day is expected to be in the thousands. The pilgrims will come from three points of entry, including the Kartarpur Corridor. Besides India, pilgrims have arrived from countries such as the US, the UK, Canada and Malaysia.

“The pilgrims (from India) will arrive and depart from the corridor on the same day. This is a dedicated corridor for (pilgrims) from India. The visitors cannot go to any other place except the gurdwara,” Faisal said.

He confirmed that former Punjab minister Navjot Singh Sidhu, a friend of Prime Minister Khan, had been issued a visa for the pilgrimage. “We will warmly welcome him at the opening ceremony,” he said.

Regarding the prospect of dialogue on other issues with India, Faisal said Pakistan is ready to talk on all matters. “It is India which has been unwilling to engage with Pakistan. Pakistan firmly believes that all disputes, whether Jammu & Kashmir, Sir Creek, Siachen and the opening of more such corridors between Pakistan and India can only be dealt with via dialogue,” he said.