How the fury over a hug between Navjot Singh Sidhu and Pakistan army chief Qamar Javed Bajwa shows our sad state

The people who have raised the decibels on the hug are the same people who actively benefit from a troubled India-Pakistan relationship.

 |  5-minute read |   21-08-2018
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On August 19, Punjab cabinet minister from the Indian National Congress, former comedian, and TV personality, Navjot Singh Sidhu, came under assault fire from several political and media quarters when he hugged Pakistan army chief, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, during newly elected Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan's swearing-in ceremony in Islamabad.

The additional charge was he sat next to Masood Khan, the president of Pakistan-Occupied-Kashmir (POK). One Bihar lawmaker has even slapped a sedition case against Sidhu who was the sole Indian representative to have attended the swearing-in.

sidhu-690_082118120513.jpgNavjot Singh Sidhu hugs General Qamar Javed Bajwa (Source: Twitter)

The attackers include the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), high-decibel media channels like Republic TV, Times Now, and Zee News, and to Sidhu's political detriment, Punjab chief minister Captain Amarinder Singh.

The BJP, in a swift attempt to drag the entire Opposition party along, demanded answers from the Congress and even indicated an immediate need for suspending Sidhu. Media channels played the fiddle by haranguing Sidhu for 'sleeping with the enemy' and indicting the Congress for encouraging such an atrocity. The Captain, too, pulled Sidhu up for "showing affection" to general Bajwa, although refusing to remove him.

It has been only a month since Congress president Rahul Gandhi hugged Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the Lok Sabha. This amusing moment, broadcast live on TV, had successfully ticked off many in the ruling establishment who ran in to mock Rahul Gandhi for his seemingly 'unparliamentary' gesture.

Quite a nation we are, aren't we, to quickly turn evidently benign acts of physical intimacy into rallying points for warmongering, chest-thumping nationalism, and cheap partisanism. What becomes of a nation that is offended, of all things bad and ugly, at a hug?

But, it's fairly easy to see why anyone would frown at Sidhu's hug and amusingly so, his seat next to a political enemy.

Those who have raised the decibels on it are the same people who actively benefit from a troubled India-Pakistan relationship. Else, how does a ruling party that feeds off from anti-Pakistanism for votes or media channels that scamper up the TRP ladder by bashing everything Pakistani remain relevant if there is any show of understanding between the warring sides? For these hypernationalists, all peace and no war is bad for business.

Call it the 'political war economy' — the unending cycle of conflict and the vested political capital that it generates day in and day out. The symbiotic logic is simple — without chest-thumping, there cannot be any war; and without war, there cannot be any chest-thumping.

A hug between two hostile parties bluntly challenges this vicious cycle. Hence, we have a Sambit Patra or an Arnab Goswami rushing in to preserve the terse status quo by doling out an emergency response to this great calamity of a hug.

Further, the reading of Sidhu's hug as an act of relenting to the enemy stems from a deeply simplistic view of an otherwise complex bilateral.

The attempt is to view every cross-border engagement between India and Pakistan as a function of militaristic bilateralism, especially when undertaken by a state representative with relatively lower political leverage. In this doctrine, there is negligible space for personalised, civilian-level engagements that attempt to go beyond the zero-sum politics of New Delhi and Islamabad.

Hence, we have a chief minister citing the routine deaths of Indian soldiers in cross-border firings to indict Sidhu. This line of attack fervently assumes that a simple hug by an Indian state cabinet minister could somehow influence the convoluted conflict dynamic across the Line of Control (LoC). If that is indeed the case, then a detailed academic study on the correlation between ceasefire violations and hugs by low-key ministers remains pending.

It is worth noting that in his 'justification', Sidhu has narrated how a seemingly private, casual banter between two Jats gave away to a hug. It appears that Sidhu and the general bonded spontaneously in a brief, conversational moment of human warmth in which they talked about cricket, cultural familiarities, and Sikh pilgrims.

But alas, warmth does not belong in enemy territory, does it? What good, after all, is an enemy if she/he is not served a cold platter of regimented arrogance and straight faces?

It is also worth noting that the highlight of Sidhu's conversation with general Bajwa was the latter's reference to opening a pilgrimage corridor between Dera Nanak Baba in Indian Punjab and Gurdwara Katarpur Sahib in Pakistani Punjab - both deemed sacred by the Sikh community, which is celebrating the 550th birth anniversary of its founding saint, Guru Nanak Dev, this year.

This is important as it reflects the core of the Indian Punjab's desire for stronger linkages with Pakistani Punjab. The mainstream commentariat has largely failed to grasp this communitarian affinity that transcends the 1947 partition, as argued by New Delhi-based political analyst, Tridivesh Singh Maini.

One wonders what the dominant reaction would have been if Prime Minister Narendra Modi or foreign minister Sushma Swaraj had hugged general Bajwa. Would the establishment politicians and media called that out too? Or would they have immediately lauded them as the Modi government's large-heartedness towards the enemy?

The answer is out for the jury, but what remains certain is that if you are a fresh-off-the-oven Indian politician, that too from the national Opposition party, consider yourself unfit for hugs and conversations when in Pakistan.

Also read: From samosas to Lahori fish, nothing will taste the same without Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s company

Writer

Angshuman Choudhury Angshuman Choudhury @angshuman_ch

The author is a researcher at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, New Delhi.

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