Trudeau Touches Down as Khalistan Issue Simmers in the Background

Trudeau’s 7-day trade mission speaks to his eagerness to do business – but the Khalistan controversy refuses to die.

5 min read
Trudeau Touches Down as Khalistan Issue Simmers in the Background
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Canadian PM Justin Trudeau is not your average politician. Young and charismatic, he's the 'rockstar' of heads of states (if that's even a thing), a Canadian Obama, if you will. He's been memed to no end, but unlike most politicians, it's been mostly flattering.

And of course, the Tru-bama bromance.

And while Trudeau has charmed desis with his epic Bhangra skills...

...none of that has stopped the boyish PM from seriously offending India.

As he lands for a week-long trade mission in the country, aiming to sign agreements and boost the bilateral relationship, the elephant in the room could play spoiler.


The Khalistan Tangle

Canadian Sikhs wield great political heft, evident from the 17 Sikh members of the Canadian Parliament and the four Sikhs in Trudeau's Cabinet – more than Modi has in his, Trudeau once joked.

But while the representation is welcome, India has had a bit of a problem with Canadian Khalistanis – a problem that could come to a head during this state visit.

Punjab CM Captain Amarinder Singh has gone so far as to accuse members of Trudeau's cabinet themselves of being Khalistanis and Khalistani sympathisers, in particular its Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan, whose father was a member of the pro-Sikh separatist group, World Sikh Organisation. Sajjan himself is not a member.


Is the Slow Simmer Boiling Over?

The issue has been on a slow simmer. Controversy was fanned most recently by a piece in Outlook titled 'Khalistan II – Made in Canada', which comes after an April 2017 motion in the Ontario Assembly in Canada to label the 1984 anti-Sikh riots "genocide" – a motion that Trudeau's main liberal rival, Jagmeet Singh, had unsuccessfully tried to pass in June 2016.

When Sajjan visited India early in 2017, Amarinder Singh and his ministers refused to meet him, saying he would not entertain ‘Khalistan sympathisers’.

Canadian Defence Minister, Harjit Sajjan, accused by Singh of being a Khalistan sympathiser.
(Photo: AP)

The next month, it was reported that Trudeau attended a 'Khalsa Day' event, at which Sikh militants killed in Operation Bluestar were glorified, posters of Bhindranwale were put up, and Khalistani flags were raised – causing India a degree of heartburn. The Indian government raised the issue, but did not seem to expect any action from the Canadians. Ministry of External Affairs spokesperson Gopal Baglay said, as reported by The Hindu:

We have taken up such issues in the past with the government of Canada, and in this particular instance, without getting into details, I can tell you the practice has not been discontinued.

The same month, a retired CRPF inspector general of police was denied entry at Vancouver Airport, on the grounds that he served a government engaged in “terrorism, systematic or gross human rights violations, or genocide, a war crime or a crime against humanity,” reported Hindustan Times. India saw this as insult upon insult, and took up the issue with the Canadian government, whose envoy to India said:

Form letters in use by the Government of Canada include generic language taken from Canada’s legislation. In this case, the language does not reflect the Government of Canada’s policy toward India or any particular organization, including the Central Reserve Police Force of India.
Nadir Patel, Canadian High Commissioner to India to Hindustan Times

On 30 December 2017, scarcely two months before Trudeau's big visit, 14 gurudwara management committees in Ontario – where the motion to label the anti-Sikh riots "genocide" was passed – banned Indian diplomats and officials from their premises under trespassing laws, on the grounds that they were promoting "anti-Sikh propaganda".

Their press note, as reported by Indian Express, said:

Keeping in mind the interference of Indian Consular and Indian Government officials in the lives of Canadian Sikhs, gurudwara management committees have jointly taken the decision to bar the entry of these officials and members from gurudwaras across Canada.
Press Note

This had a domino effect, with gurudwaras across the UK and the US following suit. Sikh groups in the US claimed as many as 96 gurudwaras had resolved to ban Indian officials, and UK's Sikh Federation claimed a similar ban – though it clarified that the officials could still visit in their personal capacities, reported Times of India.

Canada has consistently maintained that while neither its governments nor its individual ministers support Sikh separatism or extremism of any kind, they continue to support their citizens’ freedom of speech to peacefully advocate for separatism or any other political issue.

For their part, Sajjan and Amarjit Sohi, another Sikh minister in the Trudeau Cabinet, have, denied the accusations of supporting Sikh separatism, with Sajjan calling them "offensive" and "ridiculous". Both Sikh ministers are accompanying Trudeau on the visit.


Trudeau Plays It Cool

Capt Amarinder Singh had said, ahead of Trudeau’s trade mission, that he was "looking forward" to meeting Trudeau this time around and would welcome him in Amritsar, and even go with him to the Golden Temple.

Which makes it a little embarrassing that on Friday, 16 February, on the eve of Trudeau's landing in India, Canadian press reported that Trudeau "had no plans" to meet Singh, the chief minister of the state in which he hopes to build business links, on his visit.

Canada hopes the mission will bring agreements, like the Free Trade Agreement currently being negotiated, closer to fruition. Trudeau is also being accompanied by a large business delegation of prominent Canadian businesspeople keen to remove barriers to trade and investment.

And despite the fallout with Captain Amarinder, Trudeau is still on track to visit Punjab and the Golden Temple.


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