Congress leader and cabinet minister of India’s north-western state of Punjab, Navjot Singh Sidhu, embarrassed his party and the federal government by attending a religious function in Pakistan on Wednesday in which Prime Minister Imran Khan, above, insulted India by mentioning Kashmir and asking whether peace between the two South Asian neighbours will happen only if Sidhu becomes prime minister.
Khan, a former national cricketer like Sidhu, was indirectly calling for a leadership change in India by implying that peace has no chance under the present dispensation in New Delhi.
Rubbing salt into the wound, he said Sidhu is so popular in Pakistan he can win an election if he contests from Pakistan’s Punjab.
Wednesday’s function related to laying the foundation stone for a long- awaited visa-free corridor for Sikh pilgrims between Gurdwara (shrine) Darbar Sahib in Pakistan’s Kartarpur and Dera Baba Nanak shrine in India’s Gurdaspur district. The Kartarpur shrine is the final resting place of Guru Nanak Dev, the founder of Sikh religion.
Instead of acknowledging the efforts made the two countries over years for opening the corridor, Khan questioned Indians for the hue and they raised over Sidhu’s visit to Islamabad in August to attend his inauguration as prime minister.
Sidhu was then talking about peace between the two nuclear armed neighbours. Pakistan’s military and government want peace with India, Khan said, adding that Kashmir problem remains to be addressed.
Khan did not mention the hug Sidhu gave to Pakistan Army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa during the swearing-in ceremony. That hug hurt 1.3 billion Indians who believe Pakistan’s military and intelligence agencies are organising major terrorist attacks in India, especially in Jammu and Kashmir.
While praising each other in their speeches on Wednesday, the two former cricketers gave an impression that the work on Kartarpur corridor finally started because of their efforts.
Khan did not give any assurance to the Indian guests on curbing cross-border terrorism at a time when Pakistani military, agencies like Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and militant groups are extending the terror arch to Punjab.
Investigation and arrest following the deadly grenade attack on a prayer meeting of Nirankaris in Amritsar on Nov 18 (Sunday) show that ISI is sending terrorists groups like Jaish-e-Mohammed from Kashmir to Punjab to foment trouble with the help of Khalistani separatists.
While India has welcomed the start of work for the Kartarpur corridor, federal and state security agencies fear Pakistan may use the corridor to send hordes of infiltrators in the guise of pilgrims.
A federal official said it is regrettable Khan politicised the sacred event at Kartarpur by making unwarranted references to Jammu and Kashmir, which is an integral and inalienable part of India.
Chief of army staff General Bipin Rawat said the Kartarpur corridor should be seen in isolation. The whole world knows Pakistani agencies are running terror camps in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, Rawat said.
External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj said the Kartarpur corridor initiative was not connected with the dialogue process with Pakistan and talks can start the moment Islamabad stops terror activities in India.
Hours after the Kartarpur ceremony, Sidhu was caught in a social media storm.
Gopal Singh Chawla, leader of the pro-Khalistani movement advocating a separate homeland for the Sikh community, posted a photo of himself on Facebook along with Sidhu on the sidelines of the Kartarpur ceremony. Chawla is said to have played a role in the Amritsar grenade attack.
As the image of Sidhu with Chawla went viral, social media users questioned Sidhu.
Chawla is reported to be the general secretary of the Pakistan Sikh Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee which is controlled by ISI. Photos of Chawla with internationally designated terrorist Hafiz Muhammad Saeed have appeared in Pakistani media.
Congress is under pressure to act against Sidhu when he returns. His boss Chief Minister Amarinder Singh had advised him not to take the trip. But a defiant Sidhu said he was going to Kartarpur with a message of peace.
Singh explained that Sidhu went to Kartarpur in his personal capacity. But people are not convinced.
Singh is embarrassed as critics of Congress party now see Sidhu as a national security risk. They also allege rift in the party’s Punjab unit.