Thousands of Sikh pilgrims await Kartarpur corridor's historic inauguration

Chandan Prakash Singh

Kartarpur (Pakistan), Nov 8 (PTI) Thousands of Sikh pilgrims from across the world are eagerly waiting for Saturday's historic opening of the Kartarpur Sahib Corridor to visit Gurdwara Darbar Sahib after Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Pakistani counterpart Imran Khan separately inaugurate the cross-border pathway in their respective countries.

Prime Minister Modi will flag off the first batch of over 500 Indian pilgrims that will travel to Gurdwara Darbar Sahib in Narowal district of Pakistan's Punjab province through the Kartarpur corridor which is being thrown open days ahead of the 550th birth anniversary of Sikhism founder Guru Nanak Dev on November 12.

Khan will inaugurate the corridor on the Pakistani side and receive the Indian Sikh pilgrims including former prime minister Manmohan Singh.

The landmark corridor is being inaugurated amidst tight security in the backdrop of tension between the two countries over the Kashmir issue.

Already there have been mixed signals from Pakistan on the requirement of passports for the visiting pilgrims from India using the corridor. Pakistani authorities have also retracted the USD 20 service charge waiver for the inauguration day on Saturday.

Earlier, sources in New Delhi said Pakistan has conveyed to India that pilgrims using the Kartarpur corridor on Saturday will also have to pay the USD 20 service fee, going back on its promise.

In another U-turn hours later, Foreign Office spokesperson Mohammad Faisal said that Pakistan will not collect any service charge from Indian pilgrims on November 9 and 12.

'PM Imran Khan had also announced waiver of service charges of USD 20 on 9 and 12 November 2019. Abiding by the PM's commitment, Pakistan will not receive any service charge from pilgrims on these two dates,' he clarified on Twitter.

'We recall that as special gesture on auspicious occasion of 550th anniversary of Baba Guru Nanak, PM Imran Khan had announced waiver of requirements of passport & registration of pilgrims 10 days in advance. Unfortunately, Indian side has declined these facilitative measures,' he noted.

In New Delhi, the Ministry of External Affairs said on Thursday that an agreement has been signed between the two countries finalising the modalities for visits and India will stick to it.

On Saturday, Prime Minister Modi will also inaugurate the Integrated Check Post of the Kartarpur corridor. The facility is located at Dera Baba Nanak, Gurdaspur in Punjab.

India signed an agreement with Pakistan on October 24 on the modalities for operationalisation of the corridor, a long-pending demand of the Sikh community in India.

The agreement will allow 5,000 Indian pilgrims daily to visit Gurdwara Darbar Sahib where Guru Nanak spent last 18 years of his life.

Indian pilgrims of all faiths and persons of Indian origin can use the corridor and the travel will be visa-free. Each visitor would be required to pay USD 20 as fee.

A 100-member special 'Tourism Police Force' for the security of Indian pilgrims using the Kartarpur corridor has been deployed by Pakistan's Punjab province.

Sikh pilgrims have started coming at the Nankana Sahib from India and other countries in connection with the 550th birth anniversary of Guru Nanak.

Speaking to reporters in Lahore on the eve of the historic opening, Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi said: 'We have completed the Kartarpur corridor project in a record time. We will fulfil our promises with the Sikh community. It is beyond thoughts of people that the construction work on the project would be completed in the shortest period'.

Earlier, Foreign Secretary Sohail Mahmood said that pilgrims from India would be coming via the Wagah-Attari border.

'Similarly, thousands of pilgrims from across the world, especially from countries with large Sikh community, are coming to Pakistan,' he said in a statement.

However, there have been conflicting messages from Pakistan over the key issue of whether Indian pilgrims will require passport to visit Gurdwara Darbar Sahib there, and a caution from New Delhi that Islamabad needs to desist from anti-India propaganda marked the run-up to Saturday's inauguration.

Pakistan Army spokesman Maj Gen Asif Ghafoor said passport would be required to use the corridor while the Pakistan foreign office contradicted it, saying Khan has waived the condition of passport for one year for Indian Sikhs visiting the Gurdwara.

During his weekly media briefing in Islamabad, Pakistan foreign office spokesman Mohammad Faisal said the condition of passports for Indian Sikhs was waived for one year in the wake of the 550th birth anniversary of Guru Nanak.

Khan also waived the requirement to convey pilgrim information to the Pakistani government 10 days prior to entry, and he also waived USD 20 service fee per pilgrim on November 9 and 12, Faisal said, adding Pakistan has 'formally conveyed this to India'.

India and Pakistan relations touched a new low after the Indian government on August 5 abrogated the special status given to Jammu and Kashmir under Article 370 and its bifurcation into two Union Territories.

Pakistan's Punjab police on Thursday deployed a 100-member special 'Tourism Police Force' for the security of the Indian pilgrims using the Kartarpur corridor on a daily basis from Saturday. PTI CPS AKJ CPS