Indian cricketer-turned-comedian-turned-Punjab politician Navjot Singh Sidhu’s attendance at Prime Minister Imran Khan’s swearing-in ceremony hasn’t gone down well in India.
In fact, soon after Sidhu’s public announcement that he would attend the ceremony, there was a flurry of hate generated against him on social media and through India’s well-known WhatsApp hate factories – fake and hateful annotations that are circulated via WhatsApp, often by obscure elements or groups. Two other cricketers, Kapil Dev and Sunil Gavaskar, recused themselves, citing obscure ‘personal engagements’ in order to avoid any public pillorying.
There were several public pleadings for Sidhu to decline the invitation like Dev and Gavaskar did. But he refused to allude to any such suggestions or cower down to threats. On his arrival, he was seen flashing smiles to the cameras and offering lavish praise for Pakistan and Imran Khan via television sound bites using his signature Hindi-medium poetry. He remained the star attraction during the oath-taking ceremony as his fame and colourful attire invited attention.
On top of that, the smiling sardarji, who is also a minister in the Congress-led government in Indian Punjab, interacted with Army Chief Qamar Javed Bajwa in front of the rolling cameras that were broadcasting live. Both Punjabis looked quite relaxed and when their brief conversation ended with quite a warm hug, it provoked a flurry of hate and contempt in India, with politicians, extremists and seemingly anonymous social media trolls baying for Sidhu’s blood.
The controversy is refusing to die down as it continues to cause a steady stream of ridicule and aversion. What is frightening is that a sizeable number of media outlets are portraying Sidhu as a traitor for hugging the army chief. Everyone from religious extremists to liberal warmongers and mainstream politicians to hate-peddlers in the guise of television journalists want us to believe that all that ails India is due to Pakistan’s military and its spy agencies.
While criticising the visit, the ruling BJP accused the Congress of promoting Pakistan’s interests in India. BJP spokesperson Sambit Patra claimed: “There are people within the Congress Party who are trying to promote the interest of Pakistan in India. It seems that party has opened a Pakistan desk in India”.
He even declared that Sidhu’s “going to Pakistan was against the ethos of India” and blamed Congress leader Rahul Gandhi for trying to run a parallel government. Earlier, the BJP had called Sidhu’s visit, especially his hug with Pakistan army chief, shameful. Dr Subramanian Swamy, a fire-brand BJP parliamentarian and an extreme critic of Islam, Muslims and Pakistan, termed Sidhu’s visit as a form of treason and wondered why the Congress wasn’t speaking about it. The latest is that the cricketer-turned-politician has been slapped with a sedition case “for insulting the Indian Army” as his impromptu hug to the Pakistan army chief has been widely interpreted as a national offence.
The Sidhu episode clearly demonstrates the malaise that dogs relations between India and Pakistan in their current iteration. The two countries, despite the oft-advanced claims that they come from the same socio-cultural stock, have drifted apart in their political culture and social behaviour so much so that any course correction may seem wildly fanciful.
The toxic reaction from the Indian television networks to the acidic criticism from political parties shows that the sociopolitical milieu in India is far too hate-filled at the moment to offer any glimmer of hope for a real rapprochement. While Sidhu was lavishly praised in Pakistan – Imran Khan even described him as an “ambassador of peace” – he was denounced by extremists on the street and rebuffed by serious politicians, even from the Congress.
Bajrang Dal, a Hindu extremist group, put a bounty of INR 0.5 million on Sidhu’s head as one of its leaders, Sanjay Jaat, accused him of “betraying the country” in a video message that has since gone viral on social media. The Bajrang Dal even demanded the termination of Sidhu’s membership from the Punjab legislature.
Now his immediate boss and the chief minister, Captain (r) Amarinder Singh, has also joined the bandwagon of loathing and criticised Sidhu for the hug, saying he was against it when “everyday our jawans [military personnel] are getting martyred”. He also said that it was wrong of Sidhu “to have shown the affection [that] he did to the Pakistan army chief”. Earlier, Amarinder Singh had tweeted that “it (the hug) was not a nice gesture and was completely avoidable”.
Postscript: Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has popularised hugs or ‘bear hugs’ as they are sometimes fondly called in the Indian media. Modi has employed it across the world, inciting appreciation and embarrassment in equal measure.
According to a Washington Post report, he is “a tactile man” who “in official appearances, whether he is meeting a local official or a world statesman… likes to hug it out”. He has been photographed hugging world leaders as a definite part of his diplomatic reach-out. He has hugged Donald Trump, Barrack Obama, Najib Razak, John Kerry, Shinzo Abe, Mark Zuckerberg, Tony Abbot and, of course, his old sari-and-turban chum, Nawaz Sharif.
Perhaps the only exception was the former French president, Francois Hollande, who tried to resist Modi’s public squeeze when he visited India in January 2016. The Indian prime minister tried to touch Hollande on the waist, forcing the then French president to turn away from him. Sidhu’s only crime is that he hugged a Pakistani, and more particularly, a Pakistani army chief.