Why and when do Sikh jathas from India travel to Pakistan?
The 1972 Simla Agreement provided for promoting travel facilities in order to normalise relations. In 1974, India and Pakistan signed a visa agreement, and along with that, a protocol saying the two countries must allow each other’s nationals unfettered access to certain places of religious worship. According to the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee, there are 172 historical gurdwaras in Pakistan, out of which pilgrims are allowed to visit 18. Seven are in Nankana Sahib, the birth place of Guru Nanak, five in Lahore, three in Aminabad, and one each Kartarpur, Hasan Abdal and Sialkot.
Pilgrims go to Pakistan on four occasions every year. Up to 3,000 pilgrims can travel for the birth anniversary of the first Guru, which falls mostly in the year’s last quarter, and for the Baisakhi festival in April. Up to 1,000 Sikhs can go in May-June for the Martyrdom Day of the fifth Guru, Arjan Dev, who was sentenced to death in Lahore. Five hundred can go for the death anniversary of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, who breathed his last in Lahore. Initially only the SGPC sent jathas to Pakistan. With time, and the establishment of the Pakistan Sikh Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (PSGPC) in 1999, other, smaller Sikh organisations too began sending jathas — among them, the Shiromani Akali Dal Delhi, Bhai Mardana Yadgari Society, Sukhmani Sahib Sewa Society Haryana, and the Delhi Sikh Gurdwara Management Committee.
What is the procedure by which these organisations obtain visas?
There are two ways. First, through the Ministry of External Affairs — the pilgrims apply to deputy commissioners, the lists are security cleared by the home departments of states and then by the union Home Ministry, before the MEA sends approved names to the Pakistani Ministry of Interior. This is how SGPC, SAD Delhi and DSGMC apply for visas. The second way is for pilgrims or the jatha to apply directly to the Pakistani Interior Ministry. The PSGPC and Evacuee Trust Property Board (ETPB) of Pakistan facilitate the process. The Pakistanis send the list to Indian security agencies for clearance, and visas are sent to pilgrims directly by the Pak government. But the Indian government can stop any pilgrim. This way is used more by NRI Sikhs, although some in India too use it. Pilgrims can also visit on their own, but it is easier to get a visa as part of a jatha and, for a pilgrim, more economical.
Has the recent deterioration of India-Pak relations affected the pilgrimages?
The government has issued no public advisory against the pilgrimages; nor has Pakistan announced it is stopping them. Still, no jathas went this year for either the Arjan Dev anniversary on May 29, or the Ranjit Singh one on June 29. Only a small party of 14 Sikhs managed to cross over on June 8. SGPC said the MEA did not give permission to 521 pilgrims to travel to Pakistan for the Arjan Dev anniversary. For the Ranjit Singh anniversary, SGPC claimed the MEA had said it would have to bear the responsibility of the security of the jatha, which the SGPC did not want to commit to. Some 300 others who applied through the direct method did get visas, but were allegedly not allowed to board the train to Pakistan.
So who were the 14 who managed to cross over?
They were in a jatha organised by the Sukhmani Seva Society. They, and 68 pilgrims of another jatha, were to board the Samjhauta Express from Attari on June 8, but were allegedly not allowed to do so by Indian Railways officials. However, the group of 14 had visas that allowed them to also cross over on foot — which is the route they then took.