Islamabad – A day after Army Chief Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa called for a “comprehensive and meaningful dialogue” between India and Pakistan to resolve their disputes, including the core issue of Kashmir, the two countries accused each other of violating the 44-year-old protocol on visits by pilgrims.
“It is ironic for the government of India to accuse Pakistan of violating the 1974 Protocol on Visits to Religious Shrines, whereas it is the Indian government that has, in clear violation of the protocol, twice within this year denied visas to Pakistani pilgrims on occasions of Urs of Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya and Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti Ajmeri and scuttled at least three visits of Sikh and Hindu pilgrims to religious shrines in Pakistan since June 2017,” said Foreign Office spokesman Dr Mohammad Faisal in a statement on Sunday in response to the press statement issued by the Ministry of External Affairs of India alleging that its high commissioner in Pakistan had been “prevented” from meeting Sikh pilgrims at Gurdwara Punja Sahib.
The FO spokesman rejected the allegations as “baseless”, regretting that facts had been distorted and misrepresented. He said the secretary of the Evacuee Trust Property Board (ETPB) had extended an invitation to the high commissioner of India to attend the main function of Baisakhi and Khalsa Janamdin at the Gurdwara Punja Sahib on Saturday. FO says high commissioner prevented from meeting Sikhs in anticipation of protest
According to Dr Faisal, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs promptly processed the matter on Friday and granted the travel permission. However, he claimed that in the run-up to the function, the ETPB authorities noticed strong resentment among segments of Sikh Yatrees, gathered there from different parts of the world, who were “protesting against the release in India of some film on Baba Guru Nanak Devji”.
Considering an emotionally charged environment and the possibility of an untoward situation, the spokesman said the ETPB authorities contacted the Indian High Commission officials and suggested cancellation of the visit. The Indian High Commission officials, after due deliberation, conveyed back to the ETPB their agreement to the suggestion to call off the visit.
The ETPB, he said, had acted with “sincerity and in good faith, and the cancellation took place with mutual understanding”. Later, he said, the matter was raised with the Foreign Office in Islamabad and the Pakistan High Commission in New Delhi and a protest was lodged. In response, he said, the factual position was duly communicated to the Indian side, both in Islamabad and New Delhi.
“Despite that, we have seen that a wrongful version has been presented to mislead the public opinion,” Dr Faisal said, adding that “the facts regarding visits of consular/protocol teams on April 12 and 14 have also been twisted”. The matter relating to the protocol team’s access on the arrival of the Jatha at Wagah was expeditiously resolved through the intervention of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, he said.
“However, the concerned officials of the Indian High Commission chose not to return, even though they were duly notified that the requisite clearance has been granted,” he said. The FO spokesman further said there was no scheduled meeting of the Indian High Commission officials with the pilgrims on Saturday, and the officials had “duly visited Gurdwara Punja Sahib on Sunday”.
“We deeply regret this Indian attempt to generate controversy around the visits of Sikh pilgrims and to vitiate the environment of bilateral relations. For decades, Pakistan has made excellent arrangements to facilitate the visits of Sikh Yatrees from across the world, including India, and extended protocol, reception, security, medical and other facilities. This is consistent with our religious ethos and traditions of hospitality,” the spokesman said.
“For its part, Pakistan will continue to adhere to the 1974 protocol, as is evident from our issuance of visas to over 2,000 Sikh Yatrees from India. We hope that the Indian side would abide by the provisions of the protocol in letter and spirit,” the spokesman added. On Sunday, a large number of Sikhs held a protest at Gurdwara Punja Sahib, Hassanabdal, against the movie that they said hurt their religious sentiments.
Men, women and children raised slogans against the controversial movie and urged the Indian government to ban it immediately. The movie is based on the life and teachings of Sikhism’s founder Guru Nanak Dev. Pakistan Sikh Gurdwara Parbandhak committee’s general secretary Gopal Singh Chawala said that showing the Sikh’s first guru in human form was against the tenants of Sikhism.