- Nearly 4,000 pilgrims went from Punjab to Maharashtra's Nanded
- They were stranded by the lockdown enforced on March 25
- The Akali Dal has demanded the health minister's resignation
A large group of Sikh pilgrims returning from Maharashtra, who have tested positive for coronavirus, have emerged as a huge challenge for Punjab. Over 173 pilgrims have tested positive for COVID-19.
The Sikh pilgrims were stranded at the gurdwara Hazur Sahib in Maharashtra's Nanded amid the nationwide coronavirus lockdown. They started returning to Punjab from April 22 but the order to quarantine them came five days later.
Punjab Health Minister Balbir Singh Sidhu, targeted by the opposition Akali Dal for negligence in not ensuring proper quarantining of the pilgrims, has blamed the Maharashtra government where his party Congress is part of the ruling Shiv Sena-led coalition.
"Maharashtra did not help the pilgrims and left them on their own. They didn't get them tested," Mr Sidhu said on Thursday.
The Akali Dal has demanded the health minister's resignation, accusing him of not putting up guidelines for testing the pilgrims on their arrival in Punjab.
Nearly 4,000 pilgrims went from Punjab to the Nanded Gurdwara and were stranded by the lockdown enforced on March 25. Over 3,500 have returned to Punjab after the Union Home Ministry gave them permission.
Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh has been criticized for his comment that the most number of coronavirus cases in his state can be sourced to the Tablighi Jamaat meet in Delhi and the Sikh pilgrims returning from Nanded.
Akal Takht jathedar Harpreet Singh, who heads the main temporal seat of the Sikhs, has compared it to the targeting of Tablighi Jamaat members after they were linked to a large number of COVID-19 cases across the country.
"It is being propagated as if Takht Sri Hazur Sahib was the home to coronavirus and these people carried it with themselves to Punjab. It is a very big conspiracy," he was quoted by Press Trust of India as saying.
After the first few pilgrims tested positive, the Hazur Sahib Gurdwara was alerted to the possibility that it was a coronavirus hotspot.
The Gurdwara has denied the allegation of the Punjab minister that it took no precautions against the virus after the government warned against large gatherings, including religious congregations, to ensure social distancing critical to avoid the infection.
Punjab has 539 coronavirus cases and 19 have died.