Dawn – India deprives Sikh pilgrims of Jorr Mela yatra

Khalid Hasnain

Lahore – Panjab – Pakistan, 15 June 2019. A number of Sikh pilgrims staged a protest demonstration at the Attari railway station on Friday against the Indian government after a special train from Pakistan was not allowed to enter its territory to pick them for Jorr Mela.

The irritated pilgrims despite carrying visa and travel documents remained stranded at the Attari railway station as they waited for hours for the special train to take part in the Jorr Mela, which is held every year to mark the death anniversary of Guru Arjun Dev.

“It is a matter of great displeasure that India once again behaved as it did in 2017,” said an official of the Evacuee Trust Property Board (ETPB) while talking to Dawn.

On Friday, the official said, the special train reached the Wagah railway station at 9am to pick as many as 146 Sikh pilgrims.

Protest staged at Attari railway station against New Delhi for disallowing train from Pakistan to pick them

“Our authorities contacted their Indian counterparts again and again to accept and allow entry of the train to their territory for picking and bringing the Yatris to Lahore so that they could proceed to their destination for attending the 10 day long Jorr Mela festival.

“But it is very sad that at about 12.40pm they [Indian authorities] finally refused to allow the train to pick the Yatris,” the official explained.

“We all, senior ETPB officials, Sikh office-bearers of Pakistan Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee, local administration and others concerned, remained present at Wagah to welcome the pilgrims. But India didn’t bother [to facilitate their travel], forcing the pilgrims to remain stranded at Attari for hours.”

An official requesting anonymity told Dawn that around eight pilgrims, however, succeeded in entering Pakistan on foot via Wagah-Attari border.

The Pakistan High Commission in New Delhi had issued visas to around 200 Indian Sikh pilgrims for attending the festival.

Under a bilateral agreement between the two countries, Pakistan can issue visas to as many as 500 pilgrims for this event. Last year, a meagre number of pilgrims (less than 50) visited Pakistan for this event. But in 2017, India disallowed 80 pilgrims after rejecting Pakistan’s request of sending special train to pick them on June 8.

Yet some 14 pilgrims, who had visa to enter Pakistan on foot via Wagah border, succeeded in crossing the border. Later on June 28, 2017, the Indian authorities once again did not allow 300 Sikh community members to attend the death anniversary of Maharaja Ranjeet Singh, citing refusal by the Ministry of External Affairs to clear their names.

“This time, too, we had made extraordinary arrangements for the lodging, boarding, security, etc, of 146 pilgrims. On June 16, the main ceremony in this regard has been scheduled to be organised here. But India didn’t see this and forced the pilgrims to return home from Attari. It is really against the universally admitted fundamental rights of the people,” the official deplored.

There was an issue over the exact date of this event mentioned in the Nanakshahi Calendar (a calendar of Sikh pilgrims’ religious rituals in Pakistan), with a few people considering it to be June 6 as against the understanding of most of the Sikh pilgrim associations in both countries which agreed on the dates of indigenous months (Jaith, Harh), linking them to the English months, according to the official.

As most of the Sikh pilgrims considered June 16 as authentic date for this event, scores of them applied for visa.

“The Pakistan High Commission issued visas to them and this was already in the knowledge of the Indian authorities,” the official said.

Finally on Friday when the special train from the Wagah railway station was ready to travel to the Attari railway station to pick the Sikh pilgrims, the Indian government did not give it permission, depriving them of visiting Pakistan for attending the festival.