Days after the death of Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the man who repeatedly extended the hand of friendship to Pakistan, Sidhu and General Bajwa’s hug is drawing ire.
As Imran Khan was being sworn in as prime minister of Pakistan Saturday morning, chief of army staff (COAS) General Qamar Javed Bajwa showed everyone who really is the boss of Pakistan.
Navjot Singh Sidhu, the former cricketer and senior cabinet minister in the Punjab government, who attended the ceremony in Islamabad, met General Bajwa and greeted him with a hug, raising the hackles of opposition parties, including the BJP, back home.
According to Sidhu, Gen. Bajwa told him that “Pakistan wants peace”, and that as a gesture, Pakistan would open the border leading to the Kartarpur Sahib Gurudwara ahead of the 550th birth anniversary celebrations of Guru Nanak next year. Guru Nanak breathed his last at this gurudwara.
Punjab BJP chief Shwait Malik referred to Sidhu’s visit as “shameful”, while Haryana health minister Anil Vij called it an “act of disloyalty”.
Ironically, the fires which cremated former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the man who repeatedly extended the hand of peace and friendship with Pakistan, have barely died out.
Importance of the gesture
Sidhu, who is a member of the Punjab government’s committee to celebrate Guru Nanak’s 550th birth anniversary, told the media in Pakistan that he didn’t intend to discuss politics during his visit, but “got what he wanted without asking” when General Bajwa talked to him.
“I thought our chief minister would take this up with Pakistan, but the General made this gesture on his own,” Sidhu said.
Speaking in Punjabi to the Pakistani ARY TV channel, Sidhu was emotional and full of gratitude.
“General Bajwa hugged me and said it is time for peace. It is my dream as well. ‘We should stop swimming in the red sea. Let us swim in the blue ocean, let us shun the red ocean’,” Sidhu quoted Bajwa as saying.
“I never expected to hear these words from the Pakistani general,” he added.
Pakistan’s gesture of friendship comes at an important time. Not only are the embers from Vajpayee’s funeral still warm – Islamabad sent a senior minister in Imran Khan’s cabinet for the funeral as a neighbourly gesture – but Pakistan is hosting the SAARC summit later this year and is hoping against hope that India won’t boycott it like last year.
In fact, Sidhu, who was seated in a back row at Khan’s oath-taking ceremony, was brought by Pakistan’s protocol to the front row. Incidentally, the man seated on his right was the prime minister of Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir – Sidhu says he had no clue who he was. But the BJP is already calling him names.
Big plans for celebration
India is planning to celebrate Guru Nanak’s jayanti in a big way next year. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, during his ‘Mann ki Baat’ address in June, urged the people to celebrate the occasion with enthusiasm. Punjab’s chief minister Captain Amarinder Singh of the Congress responded by writing to Modi and seeking Rs 2,145 crore to carry out special projects in commemoration.
Last week, external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj announced that the government would celebrate the milestone globally with the World Punjabi Organisation (WPO) as a partner.
But General Bajwa’s proposal is bound to become a talking-point in the Sikh community in India. Sikh pilgrims, who queue up to get visas for Nankana Sahib (the Guru’s birthplace, also in modern-day Pakistan) annually, have been clamouring for a corridor to Kartarpur Sahib, only three kilometres away from the India-Pakistan border in Punjab. The devout, in fact, often queue up at the border on the Guru’s death anniversary, in the direction of Kartarpur Sahib, to offer prayers.
The parliamentary standing committee on external affairs, led by Congress MP Shashi Tharoor, has been critical of the idea. Last year, Tharoor had said that “under the current political scenario, where Pakistani agencies are regularly beheading Indian soldiers, we cannot even think of taking such an initiative”.