Chandigarh: The row over Punjab Minister Navjot Singh Sidhu’s visit to Islamabad refused to die down with the former India cricketer seeking to underplay his hugging of the Pakistan Army chief and Pakistan’s new Prime Minister Imran Khan saying that those targeting Sidhu were doing great disservice to peace.

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.

Sidhu, who has also faced criticism from Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh, read out from a prepared text and said: “My visit was not about politics but on a warm invite 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.”

Sidhu said his seating at the swearing-in ceremony of Imran Khan as Pakistan’s Prime Minister in Islamabad on August 18 was changed at the last minute and he did not know who sat next to him.

He was responding to criticism for sitting next to Pakistan-administered Kashmir President Masood Khan.

He claimed his visit to Pakistan was a tribute to Vajpayee, who wanted peace between the two countries.

Sidhu said he received a lot of love and affection in Pakistan and was disappointed by some of the reactions in India. He said he had received the invitation for the ceremony 10 times and went there becuase 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.

Two days ago, Amarinder Singh said Sidhu’s hug with Bajwa was “not a nice gesture and was completely avoidable”. Sidhu should have avoided indulging in such a gesture when Indian soldiers were getting killed every day on the borders, he said.

Asked about this, Sidhu replied: “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.”

On his part, Khan on Tuesday thanked Sidhu for attending his oath taking and said those targeting him in India were “doing great disservice to peace in the subcontinent”.

“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 the people of Pakistan. Those in India who targeted him are doing a great disservice to peace in the subcontinent — without peace our people cannot progress,” tweeted the newly-elected Prime Minister.

Khan again called out India to resolve their conflicts through dialogue.

“To move forward, Pakistan and India must (have) dialogue and resolve their conflicts including Kashmir. 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.

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.

Sidhu, now with the Congress, added that he went there bearing the message of love and prayers for Pakistanis.

But the BJP continued to snipe at Sidhu for “drawing equivalence” between his visit to Pakistan and that by Vajpayee and Modi and said diplomacy was the central government’s prerogative and not that of an individual minister.

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 hugged Bajwa as the Pakistani Army was behind the butchering of Indian soldiers and the attempt to revive the Khalistani movement.

Patra also took a dig at senior Congress leaders Mani Shankar Aiyer, Shahshi Tharoor, Saifuddin Soz, Ghulam Nabi Azad and Salman Khurshid and accused them of speaking in favour of Pakistan and against Indian Army.