Navjot Singh Sidhu's gesture of hugging Pakistan's army chief during his visit to Islamabad for Imran Khan's oath ceremony impacted soldiers and "demoralises people", Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman said today, commenting that the Punjab minister "could have avoided it".
Her comment coincided with her party, the ruling BJP, asserting that Navjot Sidhu has been reprimanded by Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj for the hug and for "messing up".
"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..., it demoralises the people. I wish Sidhu would have avoided it (hug)," Nirmala Sitharaman said during an interaction at the Indian Women's Press corps.
Mr Sidhu was seen embracing Pak Army chief Qamar Javed Bajwa at the swearing-in of fellow cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan as Prime Minister on August 18. The minister had claimed after criticism back home that it was a spontaneous gesture after Mr Bajwa told him that the Pakistan government was working on opening up the Kartarpur corridor for Sikh pilgrims.
Mr Sidhu denied that he had been told off by Sushma Swaraj in what he said was a 15-minute meeting on Monday. He said he had asked her to send a formal request to Pakistan on opening up the Kartarpur Sahib corridor as a follow-up to his visit.
"We had a detailed discussion during the meeting, I explained to her (Sushma Swaraj) about the necessity of opening of the Kartarpur corridor. A formal request should go from India's side. (The minister) said to me, 'the draft is being prepared and I will write a letter," said Mr Sidhu, who quit the BJP in 2016 and joined the Congress.
He claimed that he had written to the foreign minister once earlier during the parliament session, urging that New Delhi reciprocate after Pakistan's "gesture".
Union Minister Harsimrat Kaur Badal of the Akali Dal had a different version. "External Affairs Minister (Swaraj) reprimanded Navjot Sidhu for messing up Kartarpur Sahib corridor dialogue and misusing political clearance granted for private visit by hugging military Chief responsible for killing our soldiers," Ms Badal told reporters.
Mr Sidhu was not just targeted by the BJP but also faced criticism within his Congress party, including from his boss Chief Minister Amarinder Singh, after the event where he was seated on the front row next to a Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (PoK) leader.
Soon after his return to India, Mr Sidhu had declared that Pakistan was ready to open the corridor to Gurdwara Kartarpur Sahib, a historic Sikh pilgrimage 120 km from Lahore, on the birth anniversary of Guru Nanak.
But according to news agency ANI, Ms Swaraj has said in a letter to Ms Badal that Pak has "neither agreed to include visits to Kartarpur Sahib by Indian pilgrims under bilateral protocol nor sent any official communication" for establishing the corridor.
Kartarpur is an important Sikh destination as Guru Nanak settled there after his travels and died in 1539.
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