Trudeau Visit A Chance For India, Canada to Move Beyond Khalistan

Canadian PM Justin Trudeau is all set to visit India. But Punjab needs to work on relations with the Sikh diaspora. 

5 min read
Trudeau Visit A Chance For India, Canada to Move Beyond Khalistan

As India warms up to welcome Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau who is scheduled to be in the country between 17 and 24 February, let us revisit India’s ties with Canada, particularly our Sikh connection.

The Golden Temple in Amritsar is on Trudeau’s itinerary. Former Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper had also paid his respects at the holiest shrine of the Sikh community during his visit in 2009.

Canada has a large Indian diaspora, and the Sikh diaspora (estimated at over 40,000 and around 1.5 percent of the total population) has been successful in making a mark in the political sphere.

There are 17 Sikh Members of Parliament. Trudeau has four Sikh leaders in his cabinet – Harjit Singh Sajjan (Defence Minister), Navdeep Singh Bains (Innovation, Science and Economic Development), Bardish Chagger (Small Businesses and Tourism) and Amarjit Singh Sohi (Infrastructure).


‘Khalistan’ in Canada?

The focus in the Indian media, however, has been on sections of the Sikh diaspora in Canada, dubbed as ‘Khalistanis’ or separatists by the government of India. There is a belief within sections of the Indian establishment, that the election of Justin Trudeau as PM has emboldened separatist groups, and that some of these groups are trying to revive militancy in Punjab.

There is absolutely no doubt, that some groups do have separatist leanings, but the movement has lost steam since the 1990’s. 

From time to time, the Indian government has raised the issue of certain groups trying to create trouble in Punjab; former PM Dr Manmohan Singh had raised it with his counterpart, Stephen Harper.

Harper, during his visit to India in 2012 categorically stated that while his government would deal with violence and terrorism, he could not take action against any individual group for the ideology they were committed to as long as they were – peaceful. Said the former Canadian PM, "We can't interfere with the right of political freedom of expression."

Of late, the Khalistan angle has begun to get more prominence in the India-Canada relationship. Captain Amarinder Singh had to cancel his visit to Canada in 2016, when the Canadian government stated that Singh could visit Canada, but the government would be unable to provide security. A large section of Canadian Sikhs then supported the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) during last year’s assembly elections.


A Momentary Lapse of Reason

Singh and a section of the media believed that many of them were hand in glove with the Khalistanis. During Canadian Defence Minister Harjit Singh Sajjan’s visit in April 2017, Singh refused to meet him dubbing him and other members of Trudeau’s cabinet as ‘Khalistanis’.

Interestingly, Haryana Chief Minister Manohar Lal Khattar met with Sajjan. A large number of Canadian delegations have been visiting India, and seeking to expand economic ties with other states including Gujarat , the home state of Prime Minister Modi. In fact, Canada was one of the partner countries in the Vibrant Gujarat Summit (2017).

Both Sajjan and Sohi have made statements disassociating themselves from the Khalistan movement. It is important to note that even earlier Sajjan had clarified his stand on the issue around April 2017, but the Punjab CM was adamant and Sajjan who should have got a rousing reception from the state government was welcomed by the people, but was not received by any representative of the Punjab government, when he landed at Amritsar airport.


Towards Greater Outreach to Sikh Diaspora

An individual member bill resolution passed by the Ontario Assembly in April 2017, raised the issue of the pogrom of Sikhs in 1984, in the aftermath of Former PM Indira Gandhi’s assassination. The Indian government took exception to the fact, that the violence against Sikhs, in the aftermath of Indira Gandhi’s assassination was dubbed as a ‘genocide’ in this resolution.

Interestingly, while the government objected to this motion, former PM Manmohan Singh dubbed the violence a “genocide” and not “riots” during his apology issued in Parliament in 2005.

India and Canada can benefit immensely from a robust economic relationship. The current level of bilateral trade is way below potential (8 billion USD), but a CEPA is being worked out. Apart from this, there is scope for greater Canadian investments in India. Punjab should be especially pro-active in leveraging its diaspora in Canada.

While the state has been trying to attract investments, both domestic and FDI, given the close linkages between Punjab and Canada, the latter is its best bet. Even in areas like education, health and agriculture there is scope for greater cooperation.

Punjab could perhaps emulate states like Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana in terms of reaching out to its diaspora. So far, there have been some individual efforts in philanthropy, but this is not enough.

Correcting the Mistakes of the Past

In order to successfully harness the Punjabi diaspora, it is important to address a number of issues. First of all, the media discourse needs to be less skewed. Even some of the saner elements in the media have a skewed approach towards the Sikh diaspora.

The issue of support for Khalistan is highlighted, but the fact that there are many who may have had separatist leanings in the past but still have problems in obtaining visas gets scarce coverage. Second, the rise of politicians of Punjabi origin should be welcomed and those in the media should be more responsible instead of simply hurling accusations.

Third is the need for a more nuanced understanding of the traumatic events of 1984. Simply talking about moving ahead, while ignoring issues – especially related to justice for the victims – is not likely to be helpful.

The harsh reality is that there are enough Sikhs, both in India and overseas, who are not Khalistanis, but feel strongly about the events of the past, and believe that no genuine closure has been provided.

In conclusion, stronger ties between India and Canada will benefit both countries; Punjab, which has lagged behind in the economic sphere, can gain. For this, it is important that pragmatism prevails over paranoia.

(Tridivesh Singh Maini is a New Delhi-based Policy Analyst associated with The Jindal School of International Affairs, OP Jindal Global University, Sonipat, India. He can be reached @tridiveshsingh. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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