Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, currently among the world’s most popular leaders, was in India on an eight-day official visit in February. The young leader who, with his pop star looks, has captured the popular imagination in the West, has been viewed with circumspection by the current Indian government. The Indian Sikh diaspora in Canada, concentrated mainly in the province of British Columbia, had voted overwhelmingly for him and played a major role in his elevation to the top job in 2015. For the first time in Canadian politics, he gave four Sikhs key posts in the Cabinet. Talking to a group of students in Toronto soon after his victory, Trudeau joked that he had more Punjabi Ministers in his Cabinet than his counterpart in India, Narendra Modi.
In comparison with the reception accorded to other heads of state and Prime Ministers who were recently in India, Trudeau was given a low-key welcome. The Indian Prime Minister was not present at the airport to receive Trudeau; a junior Minister was despatched instead. By contrast, when the Prime Minister of Israel and the King of Jordan visited New Delhi early this year, Modi was present at the airport to personally greet them and, of course, give them his trademark hug.
The Bharatiya Janata Party government at the Centre as well as the Congress-run State government in Punjab continues to view the activities of the Sikh diaspora with suspicion. While the “Khalistan” movement still has some hardcore adherents in Canada, the U.S and Europe, the vast majority of the Indian diaspora, Sikhs included, seems to have reconciled to the fact that the creation of an independent Khalistan is a pipe dream.The Khalistan issue
But the scars left behind by the 1984 massacre of Sikhs and the 1985 terrorist bombing of an Air India passenger jet, have yet to heal completely. More than two thousand Sikhs were killed in India in the anti-Sikh riots of 1984. As many as 329 people were killed in the 1985 Air India crash, which was blamed on Khalistani elements. It was the first terrorist bombing of a 747 Boeing plane. India still believes that the Canadian government’s investigation of the horrific terrorist attack, which originated on their soil, was less than satisfactory. In Canada’s Ontario province, the state legislature passed a resolution last year describing the tragic events of 1984 as a “genocide”. This, naturally, did not go down well with the Indian government. New Delhi called the move “misguided”. The motion was spearheaded by a member of the Liberal Party (of which Trudeau is the national leader) in the provincial assembly.
Amarjeet Sohi, Canadian Minister for Infrastructure and one of the Sikhs in Trudeau’s delegation to India, has had a first-hand experience of the Indian state’s repressive policies. As a young man on a visit to India in the late 1980s, he was arrested by the police in Bihar on suspicion of being a “terrorist”. Sohi, who does not wear a turban and considers himself non-religious and secular, said that he was part of a progressive theatre group in Canada that opposed both religious fundamentalism and state repression. According to one report, it was the Punjab Police which first arrested him, but prompt intervention by a courageous District Magistrate probably saved Sohi from a fate worse than imprisonment at a time when “encounter deaths” were common in Punjab. Sohi was on the police radar and was arrested after he surfaced in Bihar. The authorities described Sohi as a Khalistani terrorist who was in Bihar to “train” armed naxalites. Sohi was in solitary confinement for 18 months in the Gaya prison. He claimed that he had been severely tortured. In all, Sohi spent 21 months in prison and was freed after the intervention of the Canadian government and human rights groups. The coming to power of a new State government in Bihar in 1990 also helped expedite his release.
Most Canadians believe in the concept of “self-determination”. There continues to be a secessionist movement in the Canadian province of Quebec. A referendum on Quebec’s independence was narrowly defeated in the mid 1990s. It is no surprise that there is residual sympathy in Canada for separatist movements in different parts of the world since the end of colonial rule. Such sentiments exist in Indian communities across the border in the U.S, where pro-Khalistani groups are as active as they are in Canada. Canada has the biggest Sikh population in the world outside India, constituting around 1.5 per cent of the country’s population. Sikhs constitute around 2 per cent of India’s population. While the Muslim population is greater in both India and Canada, their representation at the top levels of the government in both countries is minuscule. In general, Sikhs are viewed as a prosperous community in India and in the countries they have settled in.
But no Indian government, including the present one, has flagged the “Khalistan issue” in such a contentious way before. During his visit to Amritsar, Trudeau had to assure the Chief Minister of Punjab, Amrinder Singh, that Canada supported a united India and strongly condemned the use of violence for any cause. At the same time, Trudeau explained that his government would not be able to crack down on groups that continued to advocate an independent Khalistan. “We will always stand against violent extremism, but we understand that diversity of views is one of the great strengths of Canada,” Trudeau said in Amritsar.
Trudeau was with his Defence Minister, Harjit Sajjan, at the meeting with Amrinder Singh. When Harjit Sajjan visited India in April last year, Amrinder Singh refused to grant him an audience and even described all of Trudeau’s Sikh Cabinet ministers as “Khalistani sympathisers”.
Harjit Sajjan and Amarjeet Sohi, two of the senior-most Sikh ministers in Trudeau’s Cabinet, had taken serious objection to the characterisation and vehemently rejected accusations of having ties with separatist groups. Perhaps Amrinder Singh was still upset with the Punjabi diaspora for their funding and support of the Aam Aadmi Party in last year’s Assembly elections.
Jagmit Singh, the newly elected leader of the New Democrats, Canada’s third biggest party, is a much more vociferous supporter of Sikh causes. The leader of the centre-left party has so far refused to openly criticise the radical elements of Sikh society that continue to propagate the cause of Khalistan. Jagmit Singh was denied a visa by the Indian government in 2013.Controversial guest at state dinner
The presence of Jaspal Atwal, a former Khalistani activist, at a dinner hosted in honour of the visiting Canadian Prime Minister in Mumbai generated further controversy in both Canada and India. In a briefing to Canadian members of Parliament, Daniel Jean, Trudeau’s National Security Adviser, said that some elements in the Indian government had put Atwal’s name on the guest list in an effort to “sabotage” the state visit of the Canadian Prime Minister, and Trudeau supported this statement. India has termed the allegations as “baseless”. Atwal, who is currently based in England, was at one time a senior member of the banned International Sikh Youth Federation. He was involved in an attempt to assassinate a Punjab State Minister who was visiting Canada in 1986. He spent several years in a Canadian jail. The Indian government, however, issued him a visa although he was on the banned list for many years. Indian officials said that the visa waiver was part of an amnesty scheme for reformed Khalistani activists.
Indian governments, past and present, were more comfortable with the previous right-wing government led by Stephen Harper, which had been in power for almost a decade and a half. A large section of the non-Sikh expatriate Indian community tends to vote for the Conservative Party. On the other hand, Canadian governments led by the Liberal Party, which is currently in power, had taken a strong stance on contentious issues affecting bilateral ties, such as India’s nuclear tests of 1974 and 1998. Canada had played a key role in setting up India’s first nuclear reactors in the “atoms for peace” programme in the 1950s.
Bilateral ties received a fillip once again after the state visit of Harper to India in 2009. A road map to boost relations was drawn up. Energy, trade and commercial relations were given priority. Since then, memoranda of understanding have been signed in the areas of communications technology, defence and security and civil nuclear cooperation. After the meeting between Narendra Modi and Trudeau, a joint statement was issued that emphasised the importance of “people to people” contacts. The issue of climate change also figured in the joint statement. The two sides signed a “Framework for Cooperation between India and Canada on Countering Terrorism and Violent Terrorism.” The framework agreement specifically addresses issues involving “collaboration between the law enforcement agencies of the two countries” in disrupting the recruitment and movement of terrorist organisations and “addressing” the threats posed by “cross-border and state-sponsored terrorism”.
The manner in which the Indian government handled the Trudeau visit has left not only Canadians but also influential sections of the Sikh community in India unhappy. In a letter to Prime Minister Modi, the Sikh Forum, an apolitical body of Sikh intellectuals based in Delhi, said that the Canadian Prime Minister’s visit was “used to tarnish the image of Sikhs by both the officialdom and the media”. In its statement, it said that it was distressed “at the attempts to cast aspersions on a community as ‘anti-national’ when in reality the sacred and secular fabric of our country is sought to be torn apart by elements of irresponsible leadership at various levels in India itself”. The Forum, however, expressed its total support for the joint statement issued by the two countries on February 23 which reaffirmed the “fundamental principle of respect for sovereignty, unity and territorial integrity of the two countries”.