India sought visa-free access for 5,000 pilgrims a day to Gurdwara Darbar Sahib in Pakistan during the first round of talks on Thursday between the two sides on the Kartarpur corridor, which is expected to be opened in time for the 550th birth anniversary of Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism, in November. Only limited progress was made at the meeting.
The talks, which focused on details of the construction and a draft agreement for facilitating pilgrims to visit the gurdwara, the final resting place of Guru Nanak,were held at the integrated check post in Attari, in Amritsar, in a “cordial environment”, a joint statement said.
It was the first official contact between India and Pakistan since the February 14 Pulwama attack, for which Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) claimed responsibility, escalated tensions between the two nations.
SCL Das, joint secretary in the home ministry who led the Indian delegation, told journalists that three key issues were discussed. One, access should be visa-free and no documents other than passports should be needed to visit the shrine; two, at least 5,000 pilgrims should be allowed to visit the gurdwara everyday and another 10,000 on special occasions such as Baisakhi; and three, people of Indian origin who live outside the country should be allowed to use the corridor.
However, Pakistan “fell short of our expectations” on several counts, said a senior official aware of details of the meeting.
In response to India’s proposal for allowing 5,000 people to use the corridor every day, Pakistan indicated that only 500 to 700 people would be allowed daily. The Pakistani side did not agree to India’s proposal to permit Overseas Citizenship of India (OCI) card holders to use the corridor.
While India took the position that the corridor should be open through the week, Pakistan said it would be open on “visiting days”. The official quoted above said: “We do not have a firm commitment on the number of days.”
Pakistan countered India’s position that access should be visa-free by saying pilgrims would be allowed in with special permits with a fee. The Pakistani side also ruled out visits by individual pilgrims and travel on foot, saying groups of at least 15 people would be permitted and they would have to travel in vehicles, people familiar with the discussions said..
Initially, Pakistan had limited access only to Sikhs, but agreed to allow people of all faiths after India insisted, the people said.
It is learnt the Indian side also protested against the encroachment of land belonging to Gurdwara Darbar Sahib, which was donated by Maharaja Ranjeet Singh and other eminent Sikhs, and acquisition of land by Pakistan government. The Indian side made a strong demand for the early restoration of this land.
The Indian team also shared its concerns about the activities of pro-Khalistan elements at Sikh shrines in Pakistan. Pakistani officials offered an assurance that they wouldn’t allow anyone to use the gurdwaras or the corridor to spread any anti-India agenda in the name of Khalistan.
The two sides agreed to hold the next meeting on the corridor at Wagah on the Pakistani side on April 2. This will be preceded by a meeting of technical experts on March 19 at the proposed “zero points” to finalise the alignment of the corridor.
“Both sides held detailed and constructive discussions on various aspects and provisions of the proposed agreement and agreed to work towards expeditiously operationalising” the corridor, the joint statement said.
The Pakistan delegation was led by Mohammad Faisal, director general (South Asia) at the Pakistan foreign ministry.