THOSE who are finding fault with Punjab Tourism Minister and former cricketer Navjot Singh Sidhu for hugging Pakistan Army chief General Qamar Bajwa at the swearing-in ceremony of Imran Khan as the new Pakistan Prime Minister should heave it out: has Sidhu committed treason? What was worse, his critics say, that he sat next to Pakistan-occupied Kashmir president Masood Khan at the ceremony! The Congress has distanced itself from Sidhu’s gesture, saying it was his ‘personal’ gesture. The Bharatiya Janata Party termed his act ‘shameful’ and even questioned his decision to visit Pakistan when the country was mourning the demise of former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee! Sidhu, who was until a few years ago associated with the BJP, is being asked by party leaders if he remembered the sacrifices made by Indian soldiers at the border when he hugged Bajwa.
The visit of Sidhu was cleared by the central government itself, so any criticism about his visit during the Vajpayee death mourning period does not stand the test of reason. Obviously the government of India did not see anything wrong in his attending Imran Khan’s swearing in at the invitation of the prospective prime minister. Sidhu went there as a goodwill ambassador. Imran Khan and he had played for their countries in international cricket and Khan chose a few cricketers he had maintained friendly relations with to be witness the great day for a cricketer to be sworn in as Prime Minister. Sidhu was invited as a guest of honour and the sitting arrangement is not of invitees’ choosing but of the host. He was given a seat next to Pakistan-occupied Kashmir president Masood Khan. He could not have got up and demanded to be seated anywhere but next to PoK president. As for Gen Bajwa he hugged him twice. First, when Gen Bajwa walked up to him to greet him and hugged him and Sidhu reciprocated the gesture. Sidhu hugged Gen Bajwa again when he told him about the opening up of the Kartarpur border for the Sikhs on Guru Nanak’s 550th Prakash Parv, ostensibly overwhelmed by religious emotion.
It is surprising to note that BJP leaders have forgotten that Prime Minister Narendra Modi had gone out of way to improve ties with Pakistan despite its open hostilities against India. Atal Behari Vajpayee, as external affairs minister, engaged intensely with Pakistan and continued his efforts when he became the prime minister. Vajpayee’s action had surprised many as he was from a hardline nationalist party. He also changed India’s approach to dealing with the Kashmir question vis-a-vis Pakistan forever. Prime Minister Narendra Modi made unusual overtures to normalise relations between the two countries. He invited the now-jailed former Pakistan prime minister Nawaz Sharif to his swearing in and attended his birthday party. Despite hostilities India has extended help to Pakistanis in need of critical medical treatment, with External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj personally intervening in some cases. These acts go a long way in improving people to people relations, which in long run could lead to end of hostility.
It is wrong to read motive in the Pakistan establishment giving Navjot Sidhu a seat next to president of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. What could the Pakistani establishment have possibly expected to gain from such seating arrangement? Was sitting next to an Indian politician and former cricketer going to give legitimacy to the office of the president of PoK? Was Pakistan going to tell the world that India had ‘accepted the existence’ of PoK as ‘an integral part of Pakistan’ because an Indian politician and former cricketer had sat next to him at the swearing-in ceremony of Prime Minister Imran Khan? No matter what critics might say, Sidhu has not done anything wrong. He would have been in the wrong, at least diplomatically, if he were given a seat elsewhere but demanded to be seated next to PoK president. He would have been in the wrong if he had stood up from his seat and sought out Pakistan Army chief to pull him in a hug even though this was the last thing Gen Bajwa wanted.
Relations between the two countries have been full of complexities, but India has all along tried to keep channels of communications open and build bridges with Pakistan. The channels of communication were kept open even when the relations touched the lowest ebbs: the Kargil War, the 2001 Indian Parliament Attack and the surgical strikes. Now that Pakistan has a new Prime Minister who speaks of improving bilateral ties, India has to give him a chance to build an atmosphere for reconciliation. Attacking Sidhu with verbal acid will only sour the atmosphere and hence in that regard is not in the interest of India.