In a first, Pakistani Hindu leader proposes flights for pilgrims to India instead of Wagah road route

Officials strike cautious note, say government clearances may take time, given tensions

Updated - January 24, 2022 10:09 pm IST

Published - January 24, 2022 09:29 pm IST - NEW DELHI

B-61, AJMER-280603 - JUNE 28, 2009 - Ajmer : Devotees from Pakistan offer a Chadar at the shrine of Khwaja Moinuddin Chishty during the 797th Urs in Ajmer on Sunday. PTI Photo

B-61, AJMER-280603 - JUNE 28, 2009 - Ajmer : Devotees from Pakistan offer a Chadar at the shrine of Khwaja Moinuddin Chishty during the 797th Urs in Ajmer on Sunday. PTI Photo

Despite a complete standstill in trade and travel between India and Pakistan, a new proposal by the Pakistan Hindu Council to allow Hindu, Muslim and Sikh pilgrims to travel by air has been forwarded by the government in Islamabad.

According to sources, the proposal was sent to the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) from the Pakistan High Commission in Delhi on behalf of the Pakistan Hindu Council (PHC) chief patron Ramesh Vankwani, asking that two chartered flights of Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) carrying pilgrims be allowed to fly from Lahore and Karachi to destinations in India this Saturday.

However, the sources struck a cautious note, saying that the proposal, that was only received on Monday, had still to receive many clearances in New Delhi. The MEA did not respond to enquiries about whether permissions were likely within the next few days, or at all. A senior official of Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) also said that “no request has been received from the airline at present.” Officials also pointed to the fact that Pakistan denied overflight permission to Srinagar-Sharjah flights that began in November last year, and India refused to allow PIA flights to take Indian pilgrims to Pakistan in December, to stress that the proposal would need a political push on both sides.

If clearances are received, this would be the first PIA flight to travel to India since operations were suspended in 2019, and the first ever such flight carrying pilgrims from either side since 1947. At present, groups of Indian and Pakistani pilgrims, who still visit each other’s countries under a 1974 protocol exchange agreement, travel by road over the Wagah/Atari border.

In all about 170 pilgrims, mostly Muslim, and about 20 Hindu pilgrims would be facilitated by the PHC, that signed an MoU with PIA in December 2021 to organise a number of “faith tourism initiatives”. Amongst the early initiatives the PHC said it had facilitated two groups of Hindu pilgrims from UK, UAE, Spain and other countries in the past few weeks, who were flown to Peshawar via PIA charters in order to visit the “ShriParamhansMaharajMandir” in the remote Khyber Pakhtunkhwa district ofTeri. The Indian pilgrims crossed over Wagah by foot and then flew to Peshawar from Lahore.

“I am very hopeful we can conduct this reciprocal visit by air for Pakistanis wishing to travel to the Ajmer Sharif, Nizamuddin Auliya Dargah and other shrines, and take the first such flight myself,” Mr. Vankwani told The Hindu in a telephone interview, saying that he had received many enquiries from pilgrims eager to take the chartered flights. According to the programme drawn up, the pilgrims would take a four day tour to India, from January 29-February 1, including visits to Jaipur, Ajmer, Delhi, Agra and Haridwar.

Mr. Vankwani,who is also a legislator from the ruling Pakistan Tehreek e Insaaf (PTI) party said that he had discussed with Pakistani officials, the possibility of allowing Air India flights from India to travel to Pakistan. If permitted by both sides, these flights would carry Indian Hindu pilgrims to Peshawar for the Paramhans Mandir and to Karachi for the Hinglaj Mata Mandir.

The erstwhile “Indian Airlines” last flew to Pakistan in March 2008.

“Someone needs to break the deadlock [between India and Pakistan],” Mr. Vankwani said, “Looking at how other such conflicts in the world were resolved, we hope to make a start with faith tourism, and go on towards more tourism, and then even trade and [regular] travel.”

Trade between India and Pakistan has been suspended since August 2019, after the Pakistani government took a number of retaliatory actions to protest New Delhi’s amendment of Article 370 and other measures in Jammu and Kashmir. Even an Indian request to send 500,000 MT of wheat as humanitarian aid to Afghanistan via Wagah border has been awaiting Pakistani clearances for several months, although reports suggest this could come through within the next week.

The religious pilgrimage exchanges, which now also include the opening of the Kartarpur corridor for Sikh pilgrims are among the few India-Pakistan confidence-building measures (CBMs) that continue to exist, with hundreds of visas issued by both sides each year for groups of Hindu, Sikh and Muslim pilgrims. The other CBMs include an agreement to exchange lists of prisoners held by both sides of each other’s citizens, and lists of nuclear installations that are handed over on New Year’s day every year, that are still maintained. However, the two countries have no direct travel or trade relations, and their missions in Delhi and Islamabad, which have been significantly downsized, do not have High Commissioners at present.

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