A prominent Hindu lawmaker from Pakistan’s ruling party has announced a delay in the visit of a delegation to India under his faith tourism initiative since New Delhi needs time to make arrangements for visitors due to COVID-19 restrictions, hours after India said it has a “positive approach” on the matter and is willing to engage with Islamabad on it.
India on January 28 said there is an interest on both the Indian and Pakistani sides to expand the agreed list of shrines and mode of travel under the 1974 protocol for visits to religious places, asserting that it has a positive approach on the matter and is willing to engage with Islamabad on it.
“Let me underline that India has a positive approach on this matter and is willing to engage the Pakistani side. You are also aware that currently restrictions are in place on movement and gatherings in view of the COVID-19 pandemic. As the situation normalises, we expect that this time can be utilised to hold discussions under the bilateral Protocol,” Ministry of External Affairs Spokesperson Arindam Bagchi said.
“It is our hope to facilitate early exchange of visits to all shrines of interest to pilgrims,” Mr. Bagchi said in New Delhi.
Dr. Ramesh Kumar Vankwani, the Patron-in-chief of Pakistan Hindu Council and lawmaker of Prime Minister Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf party, later on Friday issued a statement saying the trip was delayed.
“The visit has been delayed as India needs time to make arrangements due to COVID-19 situation but it has not been cancelled,” he said, urging people to get registered for the trip, amidst a chill in bilateral ties between India and Pakistan over the Kashmir issue and cross-border terrorism.
Dr. Vankwani had on Monday announced to lead a delegation of Pakistani pilgrims to India on January 29. But it turned out that the announcement was made by him without approval by India.
Dr. Vankwani in a video message on Wednesday said that a group of 170 pilgrims, who were ready to go to India by a special flight of Pakistan International Airline (PIA), were waiting for approval by New Delhi.
He also, through a letter, asked India to urgently issue visas to his delegation of pilgrims.
Reacting to Dr. Vankwani’s initiative, Pakistan’s Foreign Office spokesperson Asim Iftikhar Ahmad told the media that the reported trip to India was an initiative by Pakistan Hindu Council to promote faith tourism.
He said that at the start of the new year there was a large group of pilgrims from India that visited the Teri Mandir and other religious shrines in Pakistan.
“We understand there is a desire on part of the Pakistan Hindu Council to continue with this initiative. We are supportive of the idea and we understand the Indian side has a positive view as well. This obviously needs to be done with agreement and mutual understanding,” he said.
Nearly 200 Hindu pilgrims from India visited the 100-year-old renovated Maharaja Paramhans Ji mandir in Teri village, Karak district of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa on January 1 amidst tight security, one year after the temple was demolished by a mob belonging to a radical Islamist party.
Earlier, Dr. Vankwani had said that his idea of faith tourism enjoys the support of the governments of both Pakistan and India and the religious tourism had already begun on January 1 when a delegation came from India.
He had planned to take the pilgrims on January 29 for a three-day trip on a chartered PIA flight to visit Ajmer Sharif, Jaipur, Agra, New Delhi and Haridwar and then fly back on February 1.
He said that a delegation of 170 devotees from India would travel to Pakistan on February 20, followed by another delegation from India on March 1.
He also said that the faith tourism initiative has the potential to deepen bilateral relations and in days to come, it will expand from religious tourism to trade and travel and finally work as a big bridge to improve ties between the two countries.
The bilateral relations between India and Pakistan have been affected badly over the Kashmir issue and India’s decision to withdraw the special powers of Jammu and Kashmir and the bifurcation of the State into two Union Territories in August 2019. Pakistan’s support to cross-border terror attacks in India also led to a chill in bilateral ties.