Punjab government received only six applications from its employees till Wednesday, three days after the actual deadline expired on December 31, in response to its request to accompany pilgrims (jathas) on four trips to Sikh shrines in Pakistan this year as liaison officers and observers. Two, however, have already submitted their withdrawal request.
On December 7, the general administration and coordination wing of the Punjab government had invited applications from its employees (Class A and B) for accompanying pilgrims to Pakistan for Baisakhi in April, Guru Arjan Dev martyrdom day in May, Maharaja Ranjit Singh death anniversary in June and Guru Nanak Dev birth anniversary (Gurpurab) in November.
The last date to apply was December 31 with a condition that the applications of the employees who have already visited Pakistan in the past five years would not be considered. Also, a Sehajdhari Sikh (with trimmed hair/beard) has to specify it in his/her application and may have to furnish a separate affidavit while getting visa at Pakistan Embassy in New Delhi.
Sumit Bansal, Senior Assistant in coordination wing, said that while there is no fixed number of how many liaison officers and observers should accompany pilgrims on each trip, it entirely depends on the number of applications received. “We have extended the deadline and applications sent till January 7 will be considered now,” he said.
Once the applications are received, they will be scrutinised and approved by the Chief Minister’s Office.
Sources in the department added that the response this year was better than last time when not a single liaison officer accompanied the pilgrims. “It was just two months after the surgical strikes. We received just one application and it was also withdrawn at the last minute. Since procedures like police verification and other formalities are followed very strictly and decisions are taken at the chief minister’s level, employees get nervous and withdraw even after applying. Also, the pre-conceived notion of security concerns at Pakistan is always there. We cannot force anyone and it is completely a voluntary job,” said the source.
One of the applicants, Prabhdeep Singh Nathowal, Ludhiana district public relations officer, said he had applied hoping it would be a great experience. “I always wanted to visited our Sikh shrines in Pakistan, which was once part of India. Security concerns cannot be a reason not to visit Pakistan as risk can be anywhere. I am hopeful my application will be approved,” he said.
While four trips are planned annually by the Punjab government to observe Sikh holy days there, they get cancelled at last moment depending on visa approvals by Pakistan. Kripa Shankar Saroj, principal secretary of general administration and coordination department, said they are hopeful that all four trips will be completed peacefully this year.