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India lodges protest after Pakistan blocks access of Sikh pilgrims to Indian diplomats

India has lodged a strong protest with Pakistan over the blocking of Sikh pilgrims’ access to Indian diplomats and consular teams, the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) said in a press release on Sunday. The standoff between India and Pakistan was once again on full display, with both countries charging each other for showing ‘diplomatic discourtesy’.

India lodged a strong protest as Indian High Commissioner Ajay Bisaria was prevented from meeting the pilgrims, Pakistan countered, saying the meeting was called off with “mutual understanding” and Indian diplomats despite clearances didn’t show up at the Wagah border.

A Jatha of around 1,800 Sikh pilgrims is in Pakistan from April 12, under a bilateral agreement on facilitating visits to religious shrines. A standard practice has been that the Indian High Commission’s consular/protocol team is attached with the visiting pilgrims to perform consular and protocol duties, like helping out in medical or family emergencies.

However, a release issued by the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) suggested that this year, the consular team was 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 the Gurdwara Panja Sahib on April 14 for a scheduled meeting with the pilgrims there. The High Commission was thus prevented from performing basic consular and protocol duties for Indian citizens,” the statement said.

On Saturday the High Commissioner 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, 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.

India described these acts as 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.

Pakistan Foreign Office (PFO) in Islamabad strongly countered the sequence of events. It said the High Commissioner Bisaria was granted travel permission to attend the main function of Baisakhi and Khalsa Janamdin at the Gurdwara Panja Sahib. But the ETPB authorities noticed protests by some segments of Sikh pilgrims against release of a film on Baba Guru Nanak Devji in India. “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 conveyed back 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 PFO statement said. On the visits of Consular/Protocol teams to Wagah on 12 and 14 April, the PFO claimed that despite requisite clearances the officials of Indian High Commission didn’t show up.

Pilgrims have become victims of acrimonious relations between the two countries. Recently, pilgrims bound to participate in the anniversaries at Hazrat Nizamuddin dargah in Delhi and Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti in Ajmer were disallowed. At least three visits of pilgrims to shrines in Pakistan were also aborted since June 2017.

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