New Delhi: India and Pakistan have reduced their differences over modalities, with both countries agreeing to allow for a visa-free Kartarpur corridor to operate daily with a limit of 5,000 pilgrims per day, that would also be open to pilgrims of Indian origin who are citizens of other countries.
On Sunday morning, an eight-member Indian delegation crossed the border to hold senior-level on the Kartarpur corridor talks with a Pakistani delegation for the second time after a gap of four months. Their last scheduled meeting was cancelled over objections by India that pro-Khalistan elements were being made part of the panel associated with the project.
The corridor project would link two important holy sites related to the founder of Sikhism, Guru Nanak, which are now on either side of the international border. The foundation stone for the project was laid last year, with plans to open this corridor to mark the 550th birth anniversary of Guru Nanak in November.
Speaking to reporters after the four-hour long meeting, the head of the Indian delegation, home ministry’s joint secretary (internal security), S.C.L. Das confirmed, “We have been able arrow down differences between our respective positions since our first meeting”.
The press release issued by India also noted that “progress was made in finalising the draft Agreement with regard to the modalities”.
In Lahore, the head of the Pakistani delegation and spokesperson of Pakistan foreign ministry Mohammed Faisal also said that both countries have “agreed on 80% and beyond regarding the Kartarpur corridor agreement”, according to PTI.
Visa not required
The key element that was accepted by Pakistan was that the corridor will not require a visa and will be operated daily. “It was agreed to allow visa free travel for the Indian passport holders and OCI card holders seven days a week,” said the press release issued by the Ministry of External Affairs.
The operation of the corridor throughout the day “was an important requirement for our pilgrims”, stated Das, who described this concurrence as “significant and substantial”.
Further, Pakistan also agreed to a limit of 5,000 pilgrims per day “with an assurance that additional numbers will be considered as the infrastructure improves”, added Das.
This means that from November, 5,000 pilgrims, either in a group or as individuals, will be allowed to travel from India to Pakistan and back on foot or ferried in buses from dawn to dusk.
During his media interaction, Faisal refused to pin down a specific number, but admitted that it would at least be 5,000 pilgrims. “It may be 5,000 or 8,000…I cannot give the exact number. This has to be decided yet”.
India had also requested that on Guru Nanak’s birth anniversary, the daily limit should be increased to 10,000, but it has not yet been accepted by Pakistan. The Indian side had also asked for “provisions to be made for preparation and distribution of langar and prasad for the pilgrims”.
Building a bridge
Pakistan has also agreed to build a bridge, rather than an earth filled embankment road, as the latter could block the waters of the border river and cause possible flooding of Dera Baba Nanak and its vicinity.
According to Das, Pakistan agreed to build the bridge after they were shown detailed flood analysis data.
“Details of the bridge that India is building on its side were shared, and 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 to the Holy Gurudwara Kartarpur Sahib, throughout the year,” said the MEA press note.
However, the bridge may not be ready in time for the inauguration of the corridor in November.
“Pending the construction of a bridge over the old Ravi creek by Pakistan on their territory, India offered to make interim arrangements for making the corridor operational in November 2019, given the historic importance of the 550th Birth Anniversary of Guru Nanak Dev Ji,” the read-out said.
Meanwhile, India claimed that Pakistan has “assured our delegation that no anti-India activity would be allowed” across the corridor.
On India’s previous objection about pro-Khalistan elements being associated with the project, Das replied that Pakistani officials “confirmed that they have been removed from prabhandak committee”
The proposed meeting in April was cancelled by India after a panel of Pakistan Sikh Gurdwara Parbandhik Committee included known Khalistan ideologues like Gopal Singh Chawla.
A dossier was also handed to Pakistan to highlight 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”.
This dossier also includes a gazette notification of the Indian government banning the group ‘Sikhs for Justice’ for organising pro-secession events. “The notification was also handed over as we were aware that the group may be active in Pakistan too,” said Das.
Asked whether India trusts Pakistan’s assurances, Das noted that New Delhi will keep a “close watch and follow up on things as they evolve”.
India has asked for consular presence at Kartarpur Sahib Gurudwara in Pakistan to provide assistance to pilgrims.
Besides, Indian officials also asked for restoration of the land of the Gurudwara and removal of encroachments. “Pakistan side agreed to look at this issue,” said the MEA press release.
On a side note, India also asked Pakistan to permit a ‘Nagar Kirtan’ from Delhi to Nankana Sahib in July and November. This walk being proposed by Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee and Delhi Sikh Gurdwara Management Committee, both of which are recognised as apex bodies for organising pilgrim visits to Pakistan under the 1974 Bilateral protocol.
India has said that the four-lane highway to the crossing point at the international boundary should be ready by September 30 this year. The deadline of the completion of the passenger terminal is October 31.
“The Government is fully confident that India would be ready to commence the pilgrimage through Kartarpur corridor on the auspicious occasion of the 550th birth Anniversary of Guru Nanak Devji,” asserted the MEA press release.
Further senior-level meeting have not been envisaged, but technical teams would be meeting again to ensure that there is “seamless connectivity”, added Das.