India, Pak hold talks on Kartarpur corridor

Officials from India and Pakistan Thursday held “detailed and constructive” discussions on the Kartarpur corridor which will enable pilgrims from India to travel to the Sikh shrine inside Pakistan through a dedicated 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 Kartapur Sahib Corridor,” a joint statement issued after the meeting on Thursday said.

Foreign office spokesperson Muhammad Faisal said in a press briefing soon after talks on the matter concluded on a cordial note in Attari, India: “Though differences persist on a few points, the meeting went well overall”.

Faisal was heading the Pakistani side during the bilateral dialogue.

Technical experts from Pakistan and India also had a discussion on key matters, he said, adding that the meeting was held in a “positive and conducive environment”. The experts discussed issues relating to the corridor, its construction, road, and other technicalities.

Faisal termed the meeting itself an achievement, noting that the two countries issued a joint statement after a gap of several years. He recalled that the two countries had last agreed on a joint statement in 2015.

Reading out the statement, he said: “Both sides held detailed and constructive discussions on various aspects and provisions of the proposed agreement and agreed to work towards expeditiously operationalising the Kartarpur Sahib Corridor.”

“Both sides also held expert-level discussions between technical experts on the alignment and other details of the proposed corridor,” he said.

He added that the two sides have also agreed to hold the next meeting at Wagah on April 2, 2019, which will be preceded by a meeting of technical experts on March 19, 2019 at proposed zero points to finalise the alignment of the corridor.

Earlier in the day, the Pakistani delegation had crossed over to India from the Wagah border crossing to negotiate the mechanisms that will govern operations of the Kartarpur Corridor.

The hope is to provide visa-free access to Indian Sikh pilgrims to the Gurdwara in Kartarpur Sahib— a small town in Narowal, 4 kilometres from the Pakistan-India border, where Sikhism founder Guru Nanak Sahib spent the last 18 years of his life.

The corridor is planned to be opened for Sikh pilgrims this year in commemoration of the 550th birth anniversary of Guru Nanak Sahib. The groundbreaking of the project on the Pakistani side was performed by Prime Minister Imran Khan at Kartarpur Sahib on November 28, 2018.

According to Radio Pakistan, Faisal, while talking to media-persons before leaving for India, expressed his confidence that dialogue on the corridor could be a step forward in the right direction “in the current vitiated situation, from conflict to cooperation, animosity to peace and enmity to friendship”.

Talking about the religious importance of the corridor, the FO spokesperson explained that Gurdwara Darbar Sahab was built at a site on the Pakistan side and Gurdwara Dera Baba Nanak in India.

“Opening the corridor to allow Sikhs access to their most revered place of worship has been a longstanding request of the Sikhs. This is also reflective of the importance and primacy that Pakistan gives to all its minorities,” he added.

On January 21, Islamabad shared its draft agreement with India and proposed that Pakistan delegation may visit India on March 14 followed by return visit of the Indian delegation to Pakistan. On 6 March 2019, India proposed that Pakistan delegation may visit Attari on March 14.

“Continuing with our spirit of constructive engagement and flexibility and in line with our sincere efforts to de-escalate the situation for regional peace and stability, we decided to agree to the Indian proposal and that is why we are here today to crossover to the Indian side shortly for what is the first of a series of meetings,” Faisal said at the Wagah border.

At today’s meeting, India has sought visa-free access to the Kartarpur shrine, and suggested that 5,000 pilgrims be allowed to visit every day.

“There should not be any additional encumbrances in the form of any additional documentation or procedures,” S C L Das, joint secretary in the Ministry of Home Affairs who headed the Indian team, told reporters.

He said “as a first step”, the two sides agreed that the passport shall be the identification document for the pilgrims.

Islamabad is expected to respond to Indian suggestions at the next meeting, scheduled for April 2 at Wagah on the Pakistan side of the border.

Technical experts from both sides will meet earlier, on March 19.

The 20-member Pakistani team was headed by Mohammad Faisal, Director General (South Asia and SAARC) of Pakistan Ministry of Foreign Affairs. On his return, Faisal tweeted, “Pakistan Kartarpur Delegation returns after constructive discussion in a cordial environment.”

“From our side, we have pressed for at least 5,000 pilgrims per day to be allowed to visit the holy shrine in the initial phase,” the Indian delegation leader said.

“This will include not only Indian nationals but people of Indian origin as well,” Das added.

India has asked Pakistan to allow pilgrims to travel on foot, if they wish. It also urged that another 10,000 pilgrims be allowed access on festivals like Baisakhi and Gurupurab.

India plans to create infrastructure for that number on its side of the corridor, the Pakistani team was told.

Last November, India and Pakistan agreed to set up the new border crossing.

Kartarpur Sahib is located in Pakistan’s Narowal district across the river Ravi, about four kilometres from the border.

Vice President M Venkaiah Naidu and Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh had on November 26 laid the corridor’s foundation stone in Gurdaspur.

Two days later, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan laid the foundation stone at Narowal, 125 km from Lahore.