NEW DELHI: Hindutva groups have slammed former Indian cricketer-turned-politician Navjot Singh Sidhu for hugging Army Chief Qamar Javed Bajwa recently, but a joint military exercise against terrorism under way in Russia involving contingents from India and Pakistan has left the critics red-faced.

Prime Minister Imran Khan has praised Mr Sidhu’s friendly gesture for being present at the swearing-in ceremony where the latter embraced Gen Bajwa who had made friendly comments about peace between the two countries.

Rightwing activist Sudhir Kumar Ojha, known for indicting celebrities, alleged in a petition filed with Muzaffarpur’s chief judicial magistrate (CJM) Hari Prasad that Mr Sidhu insulted the families of Indian soldiers killed by Pakistan’s army by hugging General Bajwa and sitting next to Azad Kashmir’s president Masood Khan on Saturday.

The cricketer-turned-politician has clarified that his visit to Pakistan was not ‘political’ but just on a ‘warm invitation from a friend’

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) said Mr Sidhu’s visit to Pakistan, especially his hug with Pakistan army chief, was “shameful”. Mr Sidhu is a minister in the Congress government in Punjab.

Mr Sidhu clarified his stand on the issue.

“If someone (referring to Gen Bajwa) comes to me and says that we belong to the same culture and we will open Kartarpur border on Guru Nanak Dev’s 550th Prakash Parv (birth anniversary), what else I could do?”

Mr Sidhu while responding to the media queries: “If you are invited as a guest of honour somewhere, you sit wherever you are asked to. I was sitting somewhere else but they asked me to sit there,” he added.

Mr Ojha said it was unbecoming of Sidhu to attend the celebrations in the neighbouring country at a time when the nation was mourning the death of former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee.

“I have urged the court to book Siddhu under IPC sections 124 A, 153 B and 504 for hurting the nation’s sentiments and order for his arrest,” he said.

Imran Khan on Tuesday came out in support of Mr Sidhu.

“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 people of Pakistan,” Mr Khan tweeted soon after Sidhu’s press conference.

“Those in India who targeted him are doing a great disservice to peace in the subcontinent — without peace, our people cannot progress,” Mr Khan said.

To move forward, he said Pakistan and India must engage in dialogue and resolve their conflicts, including the Kashmir issue.

“The best way to alleviate poverty and uplift the people of the subcontinent is to resolve our differences through dialogue and start trading,” he said.

Mr Sidhu during the press conference said his visit to Pakistan was not “political” but just on a “warm invitation from a friend”.

In a first such event, military personnel from India and Pakistan are participating in an anti-terrorism exercise organised by the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) in Russia. The exercise is aimed at enhancing cooperation between member states to deal with the growing threat of terrorism and extremism.

The exercise will see tactical-level operation being carried out in an international counter-insurgency/counter-terrorism environment.

Around 3,000 soldiers from India, Pakistan, China, Russia, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Kazakhstan are taking part in the exercise.

The Indian contingent has 200 personnel, mainly from the infantry and other arms along with some from the Indian Air Force.

The training schedule for the Indian contingent includes target practice, house intervention drills, tactical and heliborne operations and combat conditioning, reports said.

They said the joint drills will build mutual confidence, interoperability and sharing of knowledge among troops of SCO members.

In previous editions, only Central Asian nations participated.

With India and Pakistan joining the exercise, SCO’s counter-terrorism mission has expanded to South Asia, a region in a grip of terrorism and extremism.

Former army officials loyal to the BJP were at a loss to explain why it was wrong for Mr Sidhu to hug the Pakistan army chief when contingents from the two countries were trying to sort out the menace of terrorism jointly.

Published in Dawn, August 25th, 2018

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