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April 16, 2018

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Pakistan rubbishes Indian protest on consular access to Sikh Yatrees

Pakistan rubbishes Indian protest on consular access to Sikh Yatrees

ISLAMABAD: Keeping up with the past traditions, Pakistan and India got involved in a fresh squabble on Sunday — this time in “pilgrimage diplomacy” — with the former accusing the latter of violating the 1974 Protocol on Visits to Religious Shrines.

New Delhi denied visas to the Pakistani pilgrims twice this year to attend the annual Urs at the shrine of Hazrat Khawaja Moinuddin Chishti in Ajmer. However, Islamabad turned the other cheek and allowed nearly 2,000 Sikh yatrees to visit their sacred places.

New Delhi, meanwhile, came down with heavy charges saying it was Pakistan that had violated 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.

“Indian allegations of violation of the Protocol on visit to religious shrines are hypocritical, distorted and misrepresented, as it is India that cancelled the visit of Pakistani zaireen twice & scuttled 3 visits of Indian pilgrims since June 2017”, said the Foreign Office here.

Pakistan said on Saturday the matter was raised at the Foreign Office in Islamabad and the Pakistan High Commission in New Delhi and a “protest” was lodged. “In response, 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,” pointed out the spokesman.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs rejected out hand charges of Indian Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) explaining that what was a very understandable “security” situation to disallow the Indian High Commissioner to meet with Sikh yatrees, attempts were being made to “mislead public opinion”, which on Saturday the Indian media itself confessed was done in another case, that of the Kishanganga Hydroelectric Power Project by the Modi government.

“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,” said the Foreign Office spokesman.

Thousands of Sikh yatrees are in Pakistan for the Vaisakhi celebrations which mark the beginning of the Punjabi New Year. Responding to queries about the Indian allegations, the spokesman explained that considering that the Sikh yatrees had created an emotionally charged environment against the Modi government, and to avoid the possibility of any untoward situation with Indian diplomats, the Secretary of the Evacuee Trust Property Board (ETPB) contacted the Indian High Commission officials and suggested cancellation of the visit.

It is pertinent to add that Sikhs worldwide carry the ‘kirpan’, a ceremonial sword as part of their religious obligations, but it could not be ascertained whether these ‘kirpans’ were simply ceremonial or dangerous.

At the time the Indian High Commission officials appeared to have completely understood the “security” situation and themselves deliberated amongst themselves and finally 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”, said the spokesman. The ETPB informed the Indian diplomats that when the Sikh yatrees from different parts of the world realized that senior Indian diplomats were coming to meet with them they expressed strong resentment, and in an emotionally charged environment, protested against the Modi government for the release in India of some film on Baba Guru Nanak Devji which they objected to.

It was at this stage that the ETPB feared that the presence of Indian diplomats in this situation could well create a security situation and this was very well understood by these diplomats at the time.

However, soon after, things appeared to have got out of control in New Delhi when the External Affairs Ministry , when a statement charged Pakistan with violating established diplomatic protocols by preventing visiting Sikh pilgrims from meeting the Indian envoy and other diplomats based in Islamabad.

“A standard practice has been that the 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. However, this year, the consular team has been denied access to Indian Sikh pilgrims. The team could not meet the pilgrims on their arrival at Wagah Railway Station on April 12. Similarly, it was denied entry into Gurdwara Panja Sahib on April 14, for a scheduled meeting with pilgrims there,” said the Delhi statement.

India said that by denying the meeting, Pakistan had displayed diplomatic discourtesy. Rubbishing these claims, the FO clarified that the facts regarding visits of Consular/Protocol teams on 12 and 14 April have also been twisted.

“The matter relating to the protocol team’s access on the arrival of Jatha at Wagha was expeditiously resolved through the intervention of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. However, the officials concerned of the Indian High Commission chose not to return, even though they were duly notified that the requisite clearance has been granted. On 14 April, there was no scheduled meeting with pilgrims. Today, i.e. 15 April, the officials of Indian High Commission have duly visited Gurdwara Punja Sahib,” added the spokesman.

Pakistan says it cannot force the yatrees to meet their diplomats and made it very clear that there was no scheduled meeting of the Indian consular team on 14 April. They instead visited the Gurdwara on 15 April as planned - exposing the Indian falsities. After the reaction from New Delhi, the FO spokesman also tweeted the government’s position.

“Indian allegations regarding prevention of meeting of the Indian High Commissioner with Sikh yatris are reprehensible attempts to try to mutate the truth. Indian HC agreed to cancel the visit due to Sikh protests against India for screening of controversial movie in India“.

For its part, Pakistan says 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 Despite the high-handedness of India on Sunday it will continue to adhere to the 1974 Protocol, as is evident from its assurance of visas to over 2,000 visas Sikh Yatrees from India. We hope that the Indian side would abide by the provisions of the Protocol in letter and spirit.

If the (ETPB) had not wanted a meeting between the Indian diplomats and their citizens they would not have 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 14 April 2018.

“The Ministry of Foreign Affairs promptly processed the matter on 13 April and granted the travel permission”, says an official.

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