Pakistan denies Sikh pilgrims access to Indian consular team

India lodges protest; Pakistan foreign office denies charges, says pilgrims’ meeting with envoy cancelled with Indian High Commission’s consent.

Published: 16th April 2018 06:36 AM  |   Last Updated: 16th April 2018 06:44 AM   |  A+A-

Indian Sikh pilgrims at Wagha border on way to attend Baisakhi festival at the shrine of Gurdwara Punja Sahib Pakistan. | PTI

By Express News Service

NEW DELHI: India lodged a strong protest with Pakistan on Sunday over the denial of access for visiting pilgrims to Indian diplomats and consular teams. According to the Ministry of External Affairs, an Indian consular team was denied access to a jatha of around 1,800 Sikh yatris has been travelling in Pakistan from April 12, under a bilateral agreement on facilitating visits to religious shrines.

Not only could the Indian team not meet the pilgrims on their arrival at Wagah Railway Station on April 12, it was also denied entry into Gurdwara Panja Sahib on April 14, for a scheduled meeting with pilgrims there. As per standard practice, an Indian High Commission’s consular/protocol team is attached with visiting pilgrims, to perform consular and protocol duties like helping out in medical or family emergencies.

The same day, the Indian High Commissioner to Pakistan, Ajay Bisaria, who was to visit Gurdwara Panja Sahib at the invitation of the Chairman of the Evacuee Trust Property Board (ETPB), was suddenly asked to return while en route to the shrine, for unspecified ‘security’ reasons. The High Commissioner, who was to greet Indian pilgrims on the occasion of Baisakhi, was thus compelled to return without meeting Indian citizens, the MEA said.

“India has lodged a strong protest with Pakistan against this inexplicable diplomatic discourtesy, pointing out that these incidents constitute a clear violation of the Vienna Convention of 1961, the bilateral protocol to visit Religious Shrines, 1974 and the Code of Conduct (for the treatment of diplomatic/consular personnel in India and Pakistan) of 1992, recently reaffirmed by both countries,” the release said.
Denying the charges as baseless, the Pakistan foreign office said “it was deeply regrettable that facts in this matter had been completely distorted and misrepresented.”

“The factual position is that the ETPB Secretary had extended an invitation to the High Commissioner of India to attend the main function of Baisakhi and Khalsa Janamdin at the Gurdwara Panja Sahib on April 14, 2018. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs promptly processed the matter on April 13 and granted the travel permission.

However, in the run-up to the main function, the ETPB authorities noticed strong resentment among segments of Sikh yatris, gathered there from different parts of the world, protesting the release in India of some film on Baba Guru Nanak Dev. Considering an emotionally charged environment and the possibility of any untoward situation, 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 ETPB their agreement to call off the visit in view of such a situation. The ETPB acted with sincerity and in good faith, and the cancellation took place with mutual understanding,” the Pakistan statement said.

Similarly, “the matter relating to the Protocol team’s access on the arrival of the jatha at Wagha 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. On April 14, there was no scheduled meeting with pilgrims. On Sunday, the Indian High Commission officials have duly visited Gurdwara Punja Sahib,” the statement said.

“For decades, Pakistan has made excellent arrangements to facilitate the visits of Sikh yatris 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. We regret this attempt to create controversy around the pilgrims’ visit and vitiate the environment of bilateral relations,” it said.

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