During the recent oath taking ceremony for Pakistan’s new Prime Minister Imran Khan, one of the invited guests of honour was Navjot Singh Sidhu, the retired Indian cricketer who currently sits as the Minister of Local Government, Tourism, Cultural Affairs, Archives and Museums in the government of (Indian) Punjab. During the oath taking ceremony, Navjot Singh Sidhu was photographed embracing General Qamar Javed Bajwa, the chief of Pakistan’s Army. Furthermore, during the ceremony itself Navjot Singh Sidhu was seated next to Masood Khan, the President of Azad Kashmir.
Speaking about the ceremony, Navjot Singh Sidhu described himself as a goodwill ambassador for India, an informal yet meaningful role made all the more intriguing for the fact that like his long time personal friend Imran Khan, Navjot Singh Sidhu was a professional cricketer who later entered politics. On the whole, Navjot Singh Sidhu should be applauded for coming to Islamabad in a spirit of good will, peace and dignity. It is these kinds of humane and interpersonal gestures that are the only clear gateway to the kind of pan-south Asian peace that Imran Khan has stated that he strives to achieve. While it make appear overly ambitious to say that handshakes and embraces are related to a lasting peace, it is often the symbolism that helps to ignite a long and necessarily difficult process of dialogue.
To understand this, one only needs to remember how in June of this year, the world reacted to Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump shaking hands and smiling together. While the handshakes and the smiles did not immediately translate into policy, the images signalled a new era where threats would be replaced with constructive discussions and suspicion would be replaced by steps taken to build trust. At once, over half a century of hostility was replaced by a new mentality. To say this was insignificant would be a supreme betrayal of objectivity.
While Navjot Singh Sidhu does not represent the Government of India, as an important regional politician with a very recognisable face, he did represent that notion that under the right circumstances and with the right leadership, Indians and Pakistanis needn’t live in a permanent state of hostility and distrust. Sadly, for much of the Indian media and members of Prime Minister Modi’s BJP, a very different meaning was derived from Navjot Singh Sidhu’s visit to Islamabad. Navjot Singh Sidhu has been labelled as traitor by some while the BJP are demanding that he is suspended as a member of the Congress party.
Similar statements were written about Donald Trump by the liberal US mainstream media when in a moment of confusion he politely saluted a General from the DPRK before they both shook hands. This same attitude only magnified ten-fold or more now dominates much of the Indian media. This sad, regressive and parochial response to a good will mission by a patriotic and talented Indian is demonstrative of a mentality that not only rejects peace but is fundamentally ill-prepared for peace.
Against this background, it is fair to say that if Navjot Singh Sidhu was an official representative of New Delhi, a much needed bilateral peace process might be further ahead than under the current leadership. Of course, it cannot be restated enough that handshakes and embraces are not at all equivalent to a formal peace agreement. But as Imran Khan stated regarding a future peace process, “If India takes one step [forward] we’ll take two”. Navjot Singh Sidhu’s visit therefore should be viewed as a symbolic first step in whose path New Delhi policy makers could have followed. Instead supporters of the BJP and other ultra-nationalists want to take several steps back by harassing Navjot Singh Sidhu for acting in a polite and diplomatic manner.
Few politicians in the world, even in the most bellicose nations claim they prefer war to peace. But actions, even small and symbolic ones speak louder than words. Until the Indian leadership learns to speak the proverbial language of Navjot Singh Sidhu, it will be difficult to secure meaningful peace. However, in inviting Navjot Singh Sidhu to his oath taking, Imran Khan has shown that perhaps in the future under an Indian leadership that acts more like Navjot Singh Sidhu and less like his detractors, anything is possible. It is simply a matter of will, a matter of mentality and a matter of bilateral commitment.