Exactly a month after the Pulwama terror attack killed over 44 CRPF troopers, Indian and Pakistani officials met for the first time at Attari border near Amritsar on Thursday to finalise modalities of the corridor to the Kartarpur Sahib gurdwara.
“Commitment to fulfill a dream!” is how Ministry of External Affairs spokesman Raveesh Kumar referred to the crucial dialogue on Twitter, once the meet kicked off.
“Talks begin between India and Pakistan to discuss and finalise the modalities for the Kartarpur Corridor, that will facilitate Indian pilgrims to visit the holy shrine of Gurudwara Darbar Sahib Kartarpur,” he added.
The meeting started after the arrival of the Pakistani delegation via the Attari-Wagah joint check post land border.
It is being held at the Integrated Check Post (ICP) at Attari on the Indian side.
Officials of the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA), Ministry of External Affairs (MEA), National High Authority of India and other related departments represent the Indian side at the talks.
While, Pakistan has sent an 18-member team headed by its Foreign Office’s Director-General of South Asia, Muhammad Faisal, who is also the Foreign Office spokesperson.
Ahead of the meeting, India has made it clear that the talks on the corridor should not be considered resumption of dialogue. These talks were being undertaken only with the intention of operationalising the corridor in keeping with the emotions and sentiments of the Sikh community. Sources said Indian officials would reject any attempt by the Pakistani delegation to raise any issue other than the corridor at the meeting.
“It is not any resumption of bilateral talks, let me make it very clear that it is not in any way a resumption of a bilateral dialogue,” the MEA spokesperson had said earlier.
The Ministry has said that the issue relates to emotions and sentiments of the Indian citizens of the Sikh faith and its decision regarding the meeting reflects a strong commitment to operationalise the corridor on the occasion of the 550th birth anniversary of Guru Nanak Dev.
On Pakistan’s claim that India has not given visas to Pakistani journalists for covering the talks, sources said it was only a technical meeting for the corridor and not a public ceremony or event.
Sources said that security aspect was of paramount importance and there will be no dilution in that.
India is wary of the Pakistan establishment’s direct and indirect support to pro-Khalistan elements who would like to take advantage by reaching out to pilgrims from India.
On the eve of the talks, India said it would take up with Pakistan the ‘Khalistan’ propaganda during visits of Sikh pilgrims to the neighbouring country. It would be made unambiguously clear to the Pakistani side that this religious initiative should not be used for “pro-Khalistan” propaganda or for encouraging secessionist tendencies.
India is keen for visa-free access to the pilgrims to the historic Sikh shrine across the border.
Officials from both sides were also expected to discuss the alignment of the project as there is some mismatch in the coordinates.
“Continuing with our spirit of constructive engagement and flexibility and in line with our sincere efforts to deescalate the situation for regional peace and stability,” Faisal told Pakistani media before leaving for India for the talks.
He said that this was the first in a series of meetings. “We hope this initiative of the Prime Minister (Imran Khan) will not only facilitate Sikhs, especially from India, but will be a step forward in the current direction from conflict to cooperation, animosity to peace and enmity to friendship,” he added.
An Indian delegation will visit Islamabad for a follow-up meeting on March 28.
New Delhi and Islamabad had last week confirmed that talks would be held as scheduled despite the current stand-off.
The Kartarpur Sahib gurdwara in Narowal district of Pakistan’s Punjab province, located 4.5 km from the border near the Dera Baba Nanak town in Punjab’s Gurdaspur district, is significant for the Sikh community as it is here that Sikhism founder Guru Nanak Dev spent 18 years of his life and is his final resting place.
The governments of India and Pakistan are trying to facilitate the travel of pilgrims to offer prayers at the gurdwara — a demand made by the Sikhs for the past over 70 years.
Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh wants “passport and visa-free ‘khule darshan’ for pilgrims”.
India has already approved the building of a passenger terminal building (PTB complex) at a cost of Rs 190 crores to handle immigration and customs clearance facilities for 5000 pilgrims every day. The design of the complex has been inspired by “Khanda” which is the symbol of Sikhism. India has already shared the crossing point for the corridor but Pakistan has suggested an alternate crossing point.
The corridor will cater to about 5,000 pilgrims per day with provision to cater to additional 10,000 pilgrims during festivals.