ISLAMABAD   -   Meeting after weeks of heightened tensions between Pakistan and India, their representatives on Thursday held a ‘cordial’ meeting and agreed to expeditiously complete the landmark Kartarpur Corridor project to facilitate Sikh pilgrims in visiting their holy sites on both sides of the border.

The teams from the two sides met at Attari Complex at the Attari-Wagah border crossing and discussed devising a mechanism for providing Sikhs free access to Gurdwara Kartarpur Sahib and Gurdwara Dera Baba Nanak – which are few kilometres apart but happen to be across the international border.

The talks also aimed at sorting out modalities for providing easy access to the Sikhs on the both sides to their sacred places – particularly Gurdwara Darbar Sahib in Pakistan and Gurdwara Baba Nanak in India – on the 550th birth anniversary of Baba Guru Nanak in December this year.

At the talks, Foreign Office Spokesperson Dr Mohammed Faisal led Pakistani delegation comprising high officials of FO and ministries of religious affairs and communications and NESPAK. The Indian side was headed by Joint Secretary Ministry of Home Affairs SCL Das.

"Both sides held detailed and constructive discussions on various aspects and provisions of the proposed agreement and agreed to work towards expeditiously operationalising the Kartarpur Sahib Corridor," read a joint statement, the first such declaration issued by the two states in almost three years. It mentioned that the meeting, held in a “cordial environment," discussed the modalities and the draft agreement for facilitation of pilgrims to visit Gurdwara Kartarpur Sahib, using the Kartarpur Corridor.

Both sides also held expert-level discussions between the technical experts on the alignment and other details of the proposed corridor.

It was agreed to hold the next meeting at Wagah on April 2 when the Indian delegation will visit Pakistan. This will be preceded by a meeting of technical experts on March 19 at the proposed zero points to finalise the alignment, the joint statement added.

The significant understanding came after aggressive Indian steps led to skirmishes between their armed forces, bringing the two nuclear neighbours to the brink of an all out war.

Significance of project

Kartarpur is a small town in Narowal district where the founder of Sikh religion Baba Guru Nanak spent the last 18 years of his life. Subsequently, a shrine was built there which is known as Gurdwara Darbar Sahib or Gurdwara Kartarpur Sahib.

This one of the most revered places for Sikhs is just four kilometres from, Gurdwara Dera Baba Nanak, which is situated in India across the river Ravi.

The two gurdwaras are visited by thousands of Sikhs every year but those visiting one religious places cannot visit the other without getting visas and travelling through long routes. The corridor project aims at provision of visa-free access between these two places to the Sikhs on either side.

Dr Faisal’s media talk

Talking to media persons at Wagah after the talks, Foreign Office Spokesman Dr Faisal termed the meeting positive which, he said, was held in a conducive environment. He said upon arrival in India, the Pakistani delegation was received with a welcoming gesture.

It was for the first time after 2016 that Pakistan and India had issued a joint statement on any matter, which was a success and could pave the way for both countries to move forward, noted Dr Faisal - who is also Director General of FO’s South Asia and SAARC desk.

To a question, he said a lot of construction work on the Kartarpur Corridor had also been done on the Indian side and its details would be shared in a meeting of technical experts to be held at Kartarpur zero-point on March 19.

To another query regarding visa conditions for visiting Sikh pilgrims (yatrees), he said there would be no such terms as it would be a visa-free corridor.

Talking to media earlier at Wagah, prior to cross over to Attari, Dr Mohammed Faisal said Pakistan was continuing with "spirit of constructive engagement and flexibility". The step was in line with Pakistan's sincere efforts to deescalate the situation for regional peace and stability, he said.

He expressed the hope that the initiative of Prime Minister Imran Khan would not only facilitate Sikhs, especially from India but in the current vitiated situation, it would also prove to be “a step forward in right direction from conflict to cooperation, animosity to peace and enmity to friendship”.

He added that “opening the corridor to allow Sikhs access to their most reverential places of worship has been a longstanding request of the Sikhs. This is also reflective of the importance and primacy that Pakistan gives to all its minorities.”



Indian officials’ press talk

The Indian officials also talked to press conference after the meeting and reflected Dr Faisal’s hopes about the future of Kartarpur project.

The delegation members said that the Pakistani side was informed of the demand that 5,000 pilgrims should be allowed to visit Kartarpur every day and the shrine should be open for Indian citizens and Indian-origin people. MHA joint secretary SCL Das said the figure of 5,000 pilgrims is only for the phase-1 of the project.

They said the Indian government also sought visa-free travel and allowing pilgrims to walk on foot to the shrine as well since the Gurdwara is is not very far from the border.



History of project

Accommodating the longstanding request of the Sikh community, Pakistan last year in August indicated going ahead and taking up the corridor project with India.

The first major impetus to it came during the inauguration ceremony of Prime Minister Imran Khan, where Army Chief Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa promised visiting Indian dignitary Navjot Singh Sindhu to make sincere efforts for the Kartarpur project.

Later on November 26, Indian Vice President M Venkaiah Naidu and Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh laid the foundation stone of the Kartarpur corridor in Gurdaspur district on their side of border.

Two days later, Pakistan's Prime Minister Imran Khan laid the foundation stone of the corridor in Narowal.

The project was put on the back burner when tensions between Pakistan and India flared in February in the aftermath of an attack by Kashmiri freedom fighters that killed more than 40 Indian paramilitary police in the Occupied Kashmir.

India, in a knee-jerk reaction, accused Pakistan of backing the bombers and carried out an airstrike across the Line of Control.

Pakistan Air Force hit back and downed two India jets. An Indian pilot was also captured but was released after a brief detention.

Pakistan however repeatedly expressed its wish to maintain peace with India and expressed its readiness to go ahead with the planned talks on Kartarpur Corridor, seeing it as an opportunity to defuse escalation.

Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi said Pakistan's desire of opening the Kartarpur Corridor was being acknowledged and appreciated by the world community.

He said Islamabad wanted to set modalities with New-Delhi with regard to the Kartarpur Corridor. The foreign minister said Pakistan was looking forward to the Sikh pilgrims from India to come to Pakistan to celebrate 550th Birth Anniversary celebrations of Baba Guru Nanak in November.

He said a political party in India (ruling BJP) was resorting to war frenzy just for the sake of gaining popularity in order to win the upcoming elections there. He said Pakistan had nothing to do with the Pulwama incident and its reality had been exposed before the international community.