India may have frozen talks with Pakistan on the modalities of opening up of a land crossing to allow Indian Sikh pilgrims to visit Kartarpur Sahib Gurdwara in Pakistan’s Punjab province, but the two sides are to sit down for discussions this week on the infrastructure needed for the travel of pilgrims.
India had previously proposed 15-16 April for the technical talks despite having called off a round of discussions due on 2 April. According to officials, this round of talks — on details relating to infrastructure would only begin after Pakistan assuaged India’s security concerns.
New Delhi’s concerns stem from the fact that some “controversial” people associated with the Khalistan movement had been named as part of a committee constituted by the Pakistan government to oversee preparations dealing with the opening of the corridor. The Pakistani committee included Gopal Singh Chawla, a supporter of the Khalistani movement who is associated with Hafiz Saeed, the chief of the Pakistan-based terrorist group Lashkar-e-Taiba. Saeed in wanted by India for many terrorist attacks, including the plotting of the 2008 Mumbai attack.
The Khalistan movement seeks to carve out a separate Sikh state out of India’s Punjab province. While India crushed a bloody insurgency associated with the movement in the 1990s, efforts to re-ignite the movement by some expatriate Sikh groups are being carefully watched by the authorities in New Delhi. That some supporters of the movement are sheltered by Pakistan is seen as a cause for concern by India.
The Kartarpur corridor is expected to open in time to commemorate the 550th birth anniversary of Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism, in November. Indian Sikh pilgrims have been asking for the opening of the corridor for decades, given that the Kartarpur Sahib Gurudwara is the place where Guru Nanak spent the last years of his life.
Last November, the Indian cabinet gave its go-ahead to the project. The ceremony on the Indian side was presided over by vice-president Venkaiah Naidu, while Pakistan prime minister Imran Khan laid the foundation ceremony on the other side of the border.
During a first round of talks on the modalities of travel of the pilgrims held on 14 March at Attari, several points of divergence emerged, including the number of pilgrims who could go across on a given day, whether they would travel as individuals or in groups, the number of days the corridor would remain open in a week, and the documents that could be used for travel.
Earlier this month, Indian foreign ministry spokesman Raveesh Kumar said that India was “yet to get a response from Pakistan” on the association of the Khalistan supporters in the Kartarpur committee, as well as on the other clarifications sought.
Given that India is in the midst of elections, further talks on the conditions of the travel of pilgrims are expected to be held only after the new government comes into office in late May.