Violent protests in Pak cities cast shadow over visit by 800 Sikh pilgrims
Escalating protests by a hardline religious group in several Pakistani cities have cast a shadow over a visit to the neighbouring country by more than 800 Indian Sikh pilgrims to participate in the annual Baisakhi festival, people familiar with the matter said on Tuesday.
A total of 818 Indian pilgrims were briefly stranded in Lahore, the capital of Pakistan’s Punjab province, on Monday after they crossed the border at Wagah. The group left Lahore late on Tuesday afternoon for the city of Hasan Abdal, where they will join celebrations at Gurdwara Panja Sahib, people familiar with developments said on condition of anonymity.
The arrival of the Sikh jatha in Pakistan coincided with violent protests in several cities, including Lahore, Islamabad and Karachi, by Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) against the arrest of the group’s chief Allama Saad Hussain Rizvi. TLP is also pressuring the Pakistan government to act on its demands, including the expulsion of the French envoy and a ban on French imports, over the publication of blasphemous caricatures in France.
At least three people have died in the protests, including a police constable who was beaten to death during a clash in Lahore on Tuesday. Videos emerged from several places that showed paramilitary troops backing the protestors. The Pakistan government has not shown any intention of dispersing the demonstrators.
“There are concerns that the Indian pilgrims could be stranded in Hasan Abdal if the protests become more violent. The protests have already disrupted the movement of vehicles between cities such as Lahore, Islamabad and Rawalpindi,” said one of the people cited above.
The Indian pilgrims are scheduled to visit gurdwaras at several locations, including Gurdwara Janamsthan at Nankana Sahib, after the clebrations in Hasan Abdal.
Baisakhi is a spring harvest festival that marks the Sikh new year and commemorates the formation of the Khalsa Panth under Guru Gobind Singh in 1699. Gurdwara Panja Sahib at Hasan Abdal, about 350 km from Lahore, is believed to have the hand print of Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism. The main event of the Baisakhi celebrations will be held at Hasan Abdal on April 14.
Sikhs from India travel to Hasan Abdal every year to celebrate the festival.
The Indian pilgrims were initially stranded at the Wagah border crossing till 9.30 pm on Monday because of the violent protests.
“We spent the whole day in buses, though arrangements for food and water were made for us. After Pakistan’s police and security forces got the roads cleared, we were taken to Gurdwara Dehra Sahib in Lahore at 11.30 pm on Monday,” said Gurdev Singh, one of the pilgrims.
Singh said the original plan was for the pilgrims to travel directly to Hasan Abdal, without any stopover in Lahore.