New Delhi: India has lodged a strong protest with Pakistan after 1,800 Sikh pilgrims, who are on a visit there under a bilateral agreement on religious tourism, were not allowed to meet Indian high commission officials on three occasions—a charge Pakistan has denied.
The diplomatic row comes weeks after the two South Asian countries accused each other of harassing their diplomats and their families in New Delhi and Islamabad but later agreed to ensure diplomatic norms were adhered to resolve the matter.
In the latest incident, the Indian foreign ministry on Sunday in a statement described as “inexplicable diplomatic discourtesy," the move by Pakistan to effectively stop Indian diplomats from “performing basic consular duties for Indian citizens."
On 12 April, Indian officials were stopped from meeting the Sikh pilgrims when they reached Wagah—the first station when a train crosses over to Pakistan. Two days later, Indian officials were not allowed to enter the Gurdwara Panja Sahib, where a meeting with the pilgrims was scheduled. The Indian High Commissioner, Ajay Bisaria, who was to visit Gurdwara Panja Sahib, was suddenly asked to return mid-way, for unspecified “security" reasons, the Indian foreign ministry said in its statement.
More than 2,000 Sikhs from India are visiting the shrines in Pakistan on the occasion of Baisakhi, which marks the 320th birth anniversary of the Khalsa. Hasan Abdal’s Panja Sahib Gurudwara and Nankana Sahib are among the biggest shrines in Pakistan. The visits take place under the agreement signed between the two nations in 1974.
The Indian statement said it was “standard practice" to attach consular or protocol teams with visiting pilgrims, so they can help out in case of “medical or family emergencies."
“However, this year, the consular team has been denied access to Indian Sikh pilgrims," it said.
Last month, India denied visa to 500 Pakistan nationals who wished to visit Ajmer Sharif, the dargah of the famous Sufi saint Moinuddin Chisti.
A Pakistan foreign office statement refuted the Indian version of events stating that the Indian high commissioner was requested to cancel the visit as there was some “strong resentment among segments of Sikh Yatrees, gathered there from different parts of the world, protesting the release in India of some film on Baba Guru Nanak Devji."
“The Indian High Commission officials, after due deliberation, conveyed back to ETPB (Evacuee Trust Property Board), which had invited the high commissioner their agreement, to call off the visit in view of such a situation," the Pakistan statement emailed by the Pakistan high commission in New Delhi said. “The ETPB acted with sincerity and in good faith, and the cancellation took place with mutual understanding," it said.
On the question of the Indian protocol team’s access to the Sikh pilgrims, the Pakistani statement said: “The matter.... was expeditiously resolved through the intervention of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. 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."
“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," the Pakistani statement said.
“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 (R.A.) and Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti Ajmeri (Ajmer) and scuttled at least three visits of Sikh and Hindu pilgrims to Religious Shrines in Pakistan since June 2017," it added.