New Delhi/Chandigarh/ Islamabad: Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan on Tuesday jumped to the defence of his cricket pal and Punjab Cabinet minister Navjot Singh Sidhu, saying that those targeting Mr Sidhu in India were doing a "great disservice to peace in the subcontinent".
Pakistan PM Imran Khan defends Sidhu's visit, calls for peace
Taking to Twitter, Mr Khan hailed Mr Sidhu, who attended the Pakistan Prime Minister's oath ceremony in Islamabad on August 18, as an "ambassador of peace" and, in a series of tweets, urged dialogue with India and resolution of all disputes, including Kashmir.
"I want to thank Sidhu for coming to Pakistan for my oath taking. He was an ambassador of peace and was given amazing love and affection by the people of Pakistan. Those in India who targeted him are doing a great disservice to peace in the subcontinent —without peace our people cannot progress," said Mr Khan.
The new Pakistan Prime Minister also touched upon the thorny Kashmir issue. "To move forward Pakistan and India must (have a) dialogue and resolve their conflicts, including Kashmir. The best way to alleviate poverty and uplift the people of the subcontinent is to resolve our differences through dialogue and start trading," Mr Khan said.
In a separate message, the Pakistan Prime Minister also lashed out at terrorism and remembered the victims of the Peshawar school terror attack in 2014 but made no mention of the Mumbai terror attacks in 2008 which were carried out by Pakistani terrorists. Mr Sidhu has been lampooned by political rivals for his Pakistan visit and a controversial hug with Pakistan Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa in Islamabad.
Mr Khan's support for Mr Sidhu came on a day when the Congress leader strongly justified his visit to Islamabad and clarified the circumstances under which he spontaneously responded to Gen Bajwa's hug.
Mr Sidhu said hugging Gen. Bajwa at the swearing-in ceremony was an "emotional response" on learning that Sikh pilgrims may now be allowed to visit the Kartarpur shrine across the border.
"Should I have turned my back on him?" he asked, adding that his response was just a spontaneous "human reaction".
The cricketer-turned-politician also asked the BJP why the Indian high commissioner in Islamabad gifted a cricket bat to Mr Khan after he emerged as the Prime Minister-designate after the recent elections in Pakistan.
Mr Sidhu said he wanted to clarify that his Islamabad visit was not "political" and just in response to "a warm invitation from a friend".
"That friend who went through immense hard work and struggle in life. The one who reached a position which is respected and holds the capability of changing the fate of crores of people," he said.
Mr Sidhu has been slammed by the Opposition BJP and the Akali Dal and criticised even by his party leader and Punjab chief minister Amarinder Singh for the hug.
Slamming the BJP's "double standards", he reminded it of peace visits to Pakistan by Atal Behari Vajpayee and Narendra Modi as Prime Ministers.
"Why are there double standards?" he asked at a press conference in Chandigarh.
"The then Prime Minister Atal ji went there with a message of friendship. Thereafter, the Kargil War took place. Five hundred twenty-seven Indian jawans attained martyrdom. Will you blame him?" he said.
"Then, Modi sahib went to Pakistan without even any official formalities and hugged former Pakistan PM Nawaz Sharif. Will you not call him a patriot?" he said, referring to Narendra Modi's surprise visit to Lahore in 2015.
While the BJP stepped up its attack on Mr Sidhu for his Pakistan visit and hugging Gen. Bajwa, Congress spokesperson Manish Tewari dismissed the controversy and said that an attempt is being made to obfuscate the real issue which is that the BJP government does not have a Pakistan policy.
Mr Tewari said that Mr Sidhu deciding to go to Pakistan in his personal capacity is a non-issue. The issue is the relation between India and Pakistan.