India willing to talk to Pakistan on pilgrim flights

Sources say agreement on sending humanitarian aid to Afghanistan through Pakistan likely shortly

Updated - January 29, 2022 10:04 am IST

Published - January 28, 2022 09:09 pm IST - NEW DELHI

Pakistani Hindu pilgrims at the India-Pakistan Wagah border post in 2020.

Pakistani Hindu pilgrims at the India-Pakistan Wagah border post in 2020.

India is “positive” and “willing to engage” in talks with Pakistan on upgrading the 1974 joint protocol on religious pilgrimages to allow air travel as well as increase the number of shrines pilgrims from both countries could visit, the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) said on Friday.

The government’s response follows a report in The Hindu earlier this week that the Pakistan government had sent a proposal from the Pakistan Hindu Council (PHC) to allow a group of 170 pilgrims to fly directly from Karachi and Lahore to places of worship in India .

The MEA also confirmed that it hoped to secure clearances to transport food aid to Afghanistan over the land route to Pakistan, which is otherwise closed, shortly.

“There is an interest on both sides to expand the agreed list of shrines and mode of travel. Let me underline that India has a positive approach on this matter and is willing to engage the Pakistani side,” said MEA spokesperson Arindam Bagchi in response to a question from The Hindu. The government hoped that the current time period when COVID-19 restrictions were in place could be “utilised to hold discussions under the bilateral protocol”, he stated and hoped to facilitate “early exchange of visits to all shrines of interest to pilgrims”.

While the MEA’s statement indicates the permissions requested for flights beginning January 29 have not been granted at present, the offer of talks with Pakistan on renegotiating the joint protocol is a rare departure from other issues where both sides have suspended talks for several years.

Sources noted that India had conveyed its position to Pakistan through formal channels as well, and officials on both sides could meet early next week to iron out the details of how to upgrade the protocols that mandate up to 20 visits by each side to the other, of groups including Hindu, Muslim and Sikh pilgrims.

The new proposal, sent by the PHC, calls for pilgrim flights every month from each country to the other side, to give a push to its “faith tourism initiative”.

“Even if there is some delay in agreeing to the flights, it is heartening that both governments are positive about the proposal,” its head Ramesh Kumar Vankwani said.

High Commission’s tweets

The Pakistan High Commission here did not comment on the MEA statement. However, in a series of tweets about the impact of faith tourism and the newly reopened Kartarpur corridor, it said it had issued a visa to Indian national Sika Khan, who had reunited with his brother, Pakistani national Muhammed Siddique, after their separation during Partition, at Kartarpur this month.

“The story of the two brothers is a powerful illustration of how the historic opening of the visa-free Kartarpur Sahib Corridor in November 2019 by Pakistan is bringing people closer to each other,” the High Commission said.

The MEA spokesperson also struck a positive note on the ongoing discussions over India’s proposal to send 500,000 tonnes of wheat to Afghanistan as humanitarian aid that has been awaiting Pakistan government permissions for months despite a formal announcement by Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan clearing the proposal in November. India has sent about 500,000 COVID-19 vaccines and 5.6 tonnes of medical assistance to Kabul via special flights.

“The [Indian] government is committed to providing humanitarian assistance to the Afghan people, comprising food grains, COVID-19 vaccines and essential life-saving drugs,” Mr. Bagchi said at the weekly press conference. “The process to procure wheat and to arrange its transportation is currently underway. Naturally, this takes some time. We will share with you updates as soon as we have them. We hope to be able to do this shortly,” he added.

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