Punjab minister Navjot Singh Sidhu on Thursday played down his appearance in a photograph with a 'pro-Khalistan' leader in Pakistan even as the opposition Akali Dal asked if India remained his priority.
He came under a sharp attack from Shiromani Akali Dal president Sukhbir Singh Badal after a picture from the groundbreaking ceremony in Pakistan for the Kartarpur corridor showed him with 'separatist' Gopal Singh Chawla.
Chawla, who is the general secretary of Pakistan Sikh Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee and is known to speak for 'Khalistan', had shared the purported picture on his Facebook page.
Sidhu returned home Thursday after attending the groundbreaking ceremony for a visa-free corridor which will allow Sikh pilgrims access from Gurdaspur's Dera Baba Nanak to the shrine in Kartarpur, where Guru Nanak Dev spent his final years.
The minister said he had posed with several people and it was difficult to distinguish them.
"They showered so much love there. Every day ten thousands pictures were clicked, and among them who was Chawla or Cheema I do not know," he told reporters in Attari on his return.
Sidhu had received flak for attending the ceremony in his 'personal' capacity, even after being advised against it by Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh.
He said the hopes of 12 crore followers of Guru Nanak Dev had turned into reality with the “historic decision” by India and Pakistan to build the corridor.
"The thaw has begun and the ice is melting," he said at the press briefing, where he appeared with Saurabh Madan, the organiser of a Dussehra event in Amritsar where about 60 people were mowed down by a train last month.
"I returned after connecting hearts in the two Punjabs,” Sidhu said.
Gopal Singh Chawla was also seen shaking hands with Pakistan Army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa at the Kartarpur ceremony.
"There was a link between Gopal Chawla and a terrorist attack that took place in Amritsar which is his (Sidhu's) constituency," SAD president Sukhbir Singh Badal said Thursday, referring to the grenade blast at Nirankari Bhavan which killed three people earlier this month.
"If he shakes hands with him or does something with him, then Sidhu has to answer in order to make clear whether the country or something else is his priority,” he added.
Badal said Sidhu should know that Pakistan is involved in sending drugs to Punjab.
"It is General Bajwa who is behind killing our youth with whom he shakes hands,” he said, Badal said, apparently referring to an earlier row over the Pakistan army chief hugging the Punjab politician.
Taking a swipe at Congress president, the SAD chief said Rahul Gandhi has a 'very good opportunity' to expand his party in Pakistan by making Sidhu the head of the its unit in Pakistan's Punjab.
However, Congress MLA Raj Kumar Verka defended Sidhu.
"I feel Sukhbir Badal, the Badal family and the BJP are suffering from Sidhu phobia. I think they chant Sidhu's name more than Baba Nanak Dev's,” he said.
Verka said Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee chief Gobind Singh Longowal too had clicked a picture with Chawla at the same event, despite knowing his antecedents.
"Sidhu does not even know about Chawla,” Verka claimed.
Verka asked whether Badal would now seek Longowal's resignation as SGPC chief.
Meanwhile, former Delhi Sikh Gurdwara Management Committee chief Paramjit Singh Sarna, who also attended the Kartarpur event, claimed that Sidhu had avoided Chawla several times.
"But he managed to get a picture clicked with him," Sarna said in Attari.