India ready to engage Pakistan on expanding list of shrines for pilgrims

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India ready to engage Pakistan on expanding list of shrines for pilgrims
© Provided by Hindustan Times A 1974 protocol between India and Pakistan currently includes five Muslim shrines on the Indian side and 15 shrines on the Pakistani side, a majority of them gurdwaras. (AFP File Photo)

NEW DELHI: India on Friday said it is ready for discussions with Pakistan on expanding the number of religious shrines that can be visited by pilgrims of both sides and their mode of travel, against the backdrop of a Pakistani proposal for allowing pilgrims to travel by air.

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The development comes at a time when ties between the two countries are at an all-time low, with trade and most forms of travel suspended since a terror attack at Pulwama in 2019 brought the two countries close to war.

The Pakistani mission in New Delhi recently forwarded to the external affairs ministry a proposal from the Pakistan Hindu Council that permission be granted for two chartered flights of the Pakistan International Airlines to carry pilgrims from Lahore and Karachi to India. Currently, pilgrims are only allowed to travel via the Wagah land border and the Kartarpur Corridor.

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External affairs ministry spokesperson Arindam Bagchi told a virtual weekly media briefing that India is prepared to discuss the expansion of the list of shrines that can visited by pilgrims of both countries under the terms of the bilateral “Protocol on Visits to Religious Shrines” of 1974.

With Covid-related travel restrictions currently in place, he suggested these talks could be held before the situation normalises.

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“As you are aware, under the 1974 protocol between India and Pakistan, visits to religious shrines are being facilitated regularly. There is an interest on both sides to expand the agreed list of shrines and mode of travel. It naturally needs to be discussed under the protocol,” he said.

“You are also aware that currently restrictions are in place on movement and gatherings in view of the Covid-19 pandemic. As the situation normalises, we expect that this time can be utilised to hold discussions under the bilateral protocol,” he added.

India hopes to facilitate the “early exchange of visits to all shrines of interest to pilgrims”, Bagchi remarked. “Let me underline that India has a positive approach on this matter and is willing to engage the Pakistani side,” he said.

The protocol currently includes five Muslim shrines on the Indian side and 15 shrines on the Pakistani side, a majority of them gurdwaras.

Ramesh Kumar Vankwani, the patron-in-chief of the Pakistan Hindu Council and a lawmaker from Prime Minister Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party, had suggested the two proposed chartered flights could carry about 170 Pakistani pilgrims, most of them Muslims, to India to visit Ajmer Sharif, Nizamuddin dargah and other shrines.

He said he also suggested that Air India flights could be allowed to carry Indian pilgrims to Pakistan so that they could visit shrines such as the samadhi of Parihans Maharaj at Teri village in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and Hinglaj Mata mandir in Balochistan. These flights would be part of what the Pakistani side is describing as a “faith tourism” initiative.

Vankwani suggested the first flight from the Pakistani side could operate on January 29, and contended the plan was “postponed for a few days” to obtain the required clearances and also because of the pandemic. “I am hopeful this will happen next week and this programme is intact. We hope to take up to 340 pilgrims to India,” he said.

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