Punjab CM asks Pak to re-think Kartarpur service fee

Kartarpur: Sikh pilgrims visit the shrine of their spiritual leader Guru Nanak Dev, at Gurdwara Darbar Sahib in Kartarpur, Pakistan. AP/PTI

Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh has called on Pakistan to re-think the service fee charged from pilgrims visiting the Kartarpur Sahib Sikh shrine via the newly opened corridor, which he hailed as a great symbol of peace and hope.

During a visit to the Birmingham Town Hall for a special event on Sunday as part of the 550th birth anniversary celebrations of Sikhism founder Guru Nanak Dev in the UK, Singh also called for a re-think on the requirement of passports to make it easier for pilgrims.

"All these religious shrines belong to every community. We don’t stop anyone coming to our site, whether it is to Ajmer Sharif or Nizamuddin Dargah," he said.

"This business of charging money for us to pay our respects is not on...," he said, adding that he has written to Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, his Foreign Office and Home Office to look into the matter.

The senior Congress leader, who concluded his UK visit on Sunday, said he believes the Aadhar card as a proof of identity document should be acceptable to facilitate access for the poor who cannot afford to acquire passports.

"It's only going across a corridor, which has now become a sort of no-man's land. When a visa is not required, then any identity proof should be fine," he said.

While expressing his gratitude to both Prime Ministers Narendra Modi and Imran Khan for taking a step towards peace with the opening of the Kartarpur corridor, Singh expressed the hope that it could lead to further moves towards peace.

"We are hoping to achieve friendship and peace with our neighbors. India has been through enough and Pakistan has been through even worse, so I don’t know why we can't get together and sort this matter out," Singh said.

Describing the Kartarpur corridor as a beginning towards better relations between India and Pakistan, he hoped it would set the stage for the opening of other important religious shrines in Pakistan to Indians for offering prayers.

"I need investment in my state. We are no longer just an agricultural state. We have a surplus, all my godowns are full of rice and wheat with no space left. Punjab has to deviate from this and go into industry, so our youngsters have new jobs," he said.

Reaching out to UK businesses to participate in the Progressive Punjab Investors Summit on December 5-6, Singh flagged a number of industrial hubs attracting foreign direct investment (FDI) in the state, such as Chandigarh, Ludhiana, and Moga, as a result of an investor-friendly single-window offer for investors.

In a message to the Indian diaspora keen on investing in the state, he said: “Anyone from the diaspora who is interested in investing in Punjab can get in touch with one of my dedicated officers from the Secretariat, Jatinder Jorwal [Additional Principal Secretary to the Chief Minister]. He has been nominated to be their port of call.

"I have also requested the Indian High Commissioner to the UK [Ruchi Ghanashyam] to assist with this process. We welcome the diaspora to come in and invest," he added.

In reference to a historic "blacklist" of some diaspora Sikhs over anti-India activities, the chief minister stressed that he was keen to "start afresh" and that no such list remains in operation.

And as some members of the separatist Sikhs for Justice (SFJ) group, banned by India recently for its pro-Khalistani 'Referendum 2020' propaganda, claimed to have disrupted the community event in Birmingham on Sunday with some sloganeering, the chief minister branded the outfit as an "entirely ISI (Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence] operation".

"There is no ideological element, this is hardcore terrorism and they have to be dealt with like that. The government of India has banned them, which is good,” he said.

The event, organized by the Consulate General of India in Birmingham, was attended by scores of British Sikhs and diaspora representatives and included a performance by BJP MP and Sufi singer Hans Raj Hans.

"I have come to the UK before as an entertainer but feel especially privileged to be a part of these anniversary celebrations by the grace of Guru Nanak,” said the singer-politician as he performed a series of devotional hymns on stage.

Meanwhile, the Punjab government, in a release in Chandigarh, described the protest by SFJ as a damp squib.

"The handful of protestors gathered there not only had no popular or genuine support but they also did not succeed in disrupting the Chief Minister's program in any way,” it said.

Singh attended the entire event and was there for almost three hours, the release added.

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