The fumble by Pakistan over the requirement of passports for Sikh pilgrims visiting Gurudwara Darbar Sahib in Kartarpur from India via a purpose built land “corridor” in Dera Baba Nanak, may be a sign of the times across the border.
On November 1, Prime Minister Imran Khan had tweeted that Sikh pilgrims visiting Kartarpur Sahib through the corridor, could do so without passports, and any valid ID would do. He also waived the 10-day prior registration for Sikh pilgrims.
On November 7, Pakistan Army spokesman Lt Gen Asif Ghafoor, was reported as telling a Pakistani TV channel that a passport or “permit” was required.
The opening of the Kartarpur corridor on November 9 will take place at a time when an opposition politician, Maulana Fazlur Rehman, has led a massive march to Pakistan’s capital city Islamabad.
The Azadi March, as it is called, began from Karachi on October 27, travelled through other parts of Sindh and Punjab provinces, including Lahore, and arrived at the gates of Islamabad on November 1.
Fazlur Rehman, who leads an Islamist party called the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islami, wants Prime Minister Imran Khan to resign because he believes— and has said as much— that the 2018 election was rigged by the Army to “select” the Pakistan-Tehreek-i-Insaf leader.
Questions have been swirling about how Fazlur Rehman brought his caravan of tens of thousands of madrassa clerics and students all the way to the capital, and why, if the Army and Imran Khan are really on the same page, as the Prime Minister declares from time to time, has been allowed to challenge a government that has the blessings of Pakistan’s deep state.
In a previous era, Nawaz Sharif, leader of the Pakistan Muslim league (N), whose relations with the Army have been bad for over two decades, was prevented from leading a march to Islam
The Maulana does not have the same kind of wider appeal that other opposition parties such as the Pakistan Muslim League (N) and Pakistan People’s Party still enjoy, and can hardly hope to unseat Imran by himself. All this has left observers confused as to who the Maulana is actually fighting, and what he really wants from the Azadi march.
The main opposition parties have not joined the dharna. Both were apparently wary of being part of a project that could attract associations with the extension to the Army chief. Plus, PML(N) was also negotiating the release of an extremely unwell Sharif from jail.
Imran Khan’s unilateral tweet waiving off the passport requirement for Sikh pilgrims visiting Kartarpur through the corridor – he said they would only need only any valid ID — came at a time when Fazlur Rehman, a former chairman of the National Assembly’s Kashmir Commtitte during the PML(N) government, has been accusing him in speeches at the dharna site for making “a sell-out deal” with India on Kashmir, and accusing India for stopping “Pakistan’s share” of river waters into Punjab by building dams over rivers flowing into Pakistan.
In the past, he has also made the accusation that the Kartarpur corridor – on the Indian side is located in Dera Baba Nank in Gurdaspur district, close to which is Qadian town, the birthplace of the founder of the Ahmadi sect, which is not recognised as Muslims in Pakistan — was a conspiracy to provide “Qadianis”, a derogatory term for Ahmadi, an easy entry into Pakistan.
“This is the real plan– give Qadianis in India a free passageway to Pakistan, give it the name of Kartarpur Corridor, and put the Sikhs of India in front,” he has said in a speech before the Azadi March.
For a different reason, the waiver was criticised by PML(N) leader Ahsan Iqbal at a joint opposition press conference at which JUI(F) representatives were also present.
“We welcome the Sikh pilgrims, who are set to visit the country for Baba Guru Nanak’s 550th birth anniversary next week, but how an Indian citizen can enter Pakistani territory without the basic document … it means you are changing the status of that territory,” he was quoted by the Express Tribune as saying. “This government has turned Pakistan into a laughing stock with blunders such as this.”
The Pakistan Army seems to have realised that the unilateral waiver could backfire on an initiative that it has powered and driven from the start, even though the Pakistan Foreign Office continued to insist that the requirement of passport had been waived.
In the event, India, which has voiced suspicions about Pakistan’s intentions behind its eagerness on the Kartarpur corridor, said it would go by the bilateral document and the requirements specified in it, and any change would need a change in the bilateral agreement, for which there had been no request from Pakistan.