New Delhi, Aug 22: The row over Punjab Minister Navjot Singh Sidhu embracing Pakistan Army chief Qamar Javed Bajwa during his visit to Islamabad refuses to die down. As the cricketer-turned-politician faced a severe backlash from the BJP and even his own Chief Minister, Pakistan newly-elected Prime Minister Imran Khan came to his defence on Tuesday. Khan said that those targeting Sidhu were doing a great disservice to peace. “I want to thank Sidhu for coming to Pak 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 can’t progress,” Khan said earlier in the day.

However, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) continued its attack on Sidhu for his gesture towards Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa and for “seeking equivalence” of his visit with that of Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Prime Minister Narendra Modi.  (ALSO READ: Navjot Singh Sidhu Defends Himself, Says Was Asked to Sit Next to PoK leader)

Speaking in his defence, Sidhu, who was reading out from a prepared text, said, “My visit was not about politics but on a warm invitation from an old friend. Former prime minister Vajpayee had travelled on the bus to Lahore and Prime Minister Modi made an unscheduled trip to Lahore in 2015.” During that surprise stopover, Modi had hugged then Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, he said. “No one is questioning Prime Minister Modi.”

On his seating arrangement at the swearing-in ceremony, he said it was changed at the last minute and he did not know who sat next to him. Sidhu said he received a lot of love and affection in Pakistan and was disappointed by some of the reactions back home. He said he had received the invitation for the ceremony ten times and went there because of repeated reminders from Khan. “Even our government gave permission to me to visit Pakistan. Two days after Pakistan gave me the visa, our External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj called me and said that I had been given permission (to go),” Sidhu said.

Punjab Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh had also hit out at his Cabinet minister Sidhu. “As far as hugging the Pakistan Army Chief is concerned, I am not in its favour. It was wrong of him to have shown the affection towards the Pakistan Army Chief at a time when our soldiers are being martyred,” he had said. (ALSO READ: It Was Wrong to Show Affection Towards Pak Army Chief: Amarinder Singh on Sidhu’s Hugplomacy)

Asked to comment on Singh’s reaction, Sidhu said, “I was criticized by the Captain (Amarinder Singh), by top Congress leaders. It is not necessary that if the Captain has spoken against me, I should also speak against him. It’s a democracy and everyone has the right to have an opinion.”

The Punjab minister had attended the swearing-in ceremony of his friend and former cricketer Imran Khan as the Prime Minister of Pakistan in Islamabad on August 18. While in Islamabad, Sidhu had expressed hope that the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf chief’s victory would be good for the peace process between the two neighbours. BJP spokesperson Sambit Patra also attacked Congress President Rahul Gandhi over Sidhu’s remarks and alleged that the Opposition party leaders had been making statements in favour of Pakistan. “Rahul Gandhi cannot run a government parallel to that of the government of India. Diplomacy is the prerogative of the Central government. It does not come under state governments. Any individual minister cannot decide on it.”

Patra asked why Sidhu had hugged Bajwa when the Pakistani Army was behind the butchering of Indian soldiers and the attempt to revive the Khalistani movement. He also took a dig at senior Congress leaders Mani Shankar Aiyer, Shashi Tharoor, Saifuddin Soz, Ghulam Nabi Azad and Salman Khurshid and accused them of speaking in favour of Pakistan and against the Indian Army.

(With agency inputs)