Fresh row flares up over Navjot Singh Sidhu’s Pakistan trip
A fresh storm brewed on Tuesday over Punjab Congress minister Navjot Singh Sidhu’s trip to Islamabad last month, with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) accusing him of acting like a “Pakistani agent”, Union minister Harsimrat Kaur Badal accusing him of lying to people over the Kartarpur gurdwara corridor, and Sidhu suggesting that it was up to the Centre to take measures to have the pilgrimage route opened.
Sidhu landed in a controversy after his Islamabad visit on a personal invitation to attend cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan’s swearing-in as Prime Minister on August 18. A month on, his hug with Pakistan Army chief General Qamar Bajwa at the event continued to kick up a political storm, both in his home state and in the national capital.
In New Delhi, Badal, a leader of BJP ally Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD), accused Sidhu of “inventing an excuse” — the emotive issue of opening the passage to Kartarpur Sahib, the birthplace of first Sikh master Guru Nanak Dev in Pakistan — to weather the storm he was facing.
Her comments came on the day Sidhu told a press conference in Chandigarh that foreign minister Sushma Swaraj had assured him that India will write to Pakistan on the opening of the passage at a time when Punjab was preparing to celebrate the Sikh religious leader’s 550th birth anniversary next November. He described the Kartarpur Sahib Gurdwara as the Sikhs’ “own Mecca”, stressing that it was the responsibility of the Indian government to make a formal request for opening the corridor. “During the 15-minute meeting with the Union minister (Swaraj), I explained about the necessity of opening of the corridor,” said Sidhu, adding that Pakistan had already shown “positive intent”.
“The place (Kartarpur Sahib Gurdwara) is located there (in Pakistan) and we want to go there (to pay obeisance). So we need to initiate talks and a formal request (for opening of passage) should go from our side,” said Sidhu, a former BJP?leader.
Contesting Sidhu’s charge, Badal said the Pakistan government had so far neither agreed to include visits to Kartarpur Sahib under any bilateral pact nor sent any official communication on opening the corridor.
Back in Punjab, her husband, SAD chief Sukhbir Singh Badal, called Sidhu the “biggest traitor” of the country and demanded the Congress leader’s call details be investigated “as he is in constant touch with Pakistanis”.
Under fire for hugging Bajwa, Sidhu had said in the past that the Pakistan army chief’s remarks that Islamabad was trying to open the corridor had made him emotional. “He kept his friendship above the country...,” Harsimrat Badal said.
In Delhi, defence minister Nirmala Sitharaman said Sidhu’s gesture of hugging the Pakistan army chief was demoralising for Indian soldiers. “Sidhu has a lot of admirers... somebody of that stature going there and then hugging the chief of the army, an army about which, in India, we have very clear feelings. It certainly has an impact on soldiers and people in the (defence) ministry. The public response is also similar. It is demoralising. I wish Sidhu had avoided it,” Sitharaman said.
The BJP?also said Sidhu was demeaning India and speaking as an agent of Pakistan by attempting to “justify” hugging Bajwa, and claiming that Pakistan was willing to allow Sikh pilgrims access to the gurdwara on its territory.
At a press conference in the capital, BJP spokesperson Sambit Patra also demanded a response from Congress president Rahul Gandhi over the issue, alleging Sidhu had been speaking on the matter with his permission since Punjab chief minister Amarinder Singh had already condemned him over his conduct in Pakistan. The BJP spokesperson said Swaraj reprimanded Sidhu in their meeting on Monday for his conduct in Pakistan.
At his press meet, Sidhu refused to comment on the matter. “I have nothing to say... They can abuse me as much as they want. Politics and religion should be separate.”
The Congress’s chief spokesperson, Randeep Singh Surjewala, came out in Sidhu’s defence. “Does the naysayer even realise how important a place of pilgrimage the Kartarpur Sahib corridor is for the minority Sikh community? Instead of berating Sidhu, should the Prime Minister not ensure that our Sikh brothers and sisters are permitted to have ‘darshan’ of a place important for Sikhs?” he asked.