Khalistan factor casts a shadow over Trudeau visit

Suhasini Haider

Perceived proximity to Sikh extremist groups takes away warmth expected during the Canadian Prime Minister's ongoing visit.

Khalistan, the issue that kept India-Canada ties on ice through three decades from 1980, has reappeared as an issue more recently, taking away much of the warmth that was expected during Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s ongoing visit to India.

Former diplomats say the seeds of the current tensions were sowed when Mr. Trudeau came to power in 2015. He received widespread support from some of the most extreme Khalistani political groups, and has repeatedly failed to take into account the sensitivities in  India over the past where Sikh terror groups received support from elements in Canada.

‘Khalsa day’ reverses it all

A major breaking point came last April when Mr.Trudeau attended a “khalsa day” parade organised by one of the more radical gurdwaras in Toronto. At the time, the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) made it clear that India’s protest had been taken up with the Canadian government.

Among other issues was the felicitation at the parade of a politician responsible for a resolution in the Ontario assembly that accused India of “genocide” during the 1984 Anti-Sikh riots, a vote that India had also protested strongly. In addition, floats at the parade depicted Sikh militant leaders Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, Amreek Singh and former General Shahbeg Singh, who were killed in the siege of the Golden Temple and Operation Bluestar in June 1984, as heroes. During his tenure, former Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper had not attended the rally, easing the path for visits by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in 2012 and Prime Minister Modi to Canada in 2015.

“The visit to the khalsa day parade was a no-no for Canadian Prime Ministers for at least a decade, and we may be back to the drawing board on this issue” former Ambassador to Canada Vishnu Prakash told The Hindu, adding that Mr. Trudeau “has been left in no doubt on India’s concerns on the issue, and they have been taken up at the highest levels.”

Sikh extremist groups’ move

Issues over the growth of Sikh extremist groups, especially those seeking a “referendum 2020” for the worldwide Sikh diaspora to vote on an “independent khalistan” have been raised several times in the past few years, officials told The Hindu, including when former Defence Minister Arun Jaitley met with Canadian Defence Minister Harjit Singh Sajjan, and Prime Minister Narendra Modi is understood to have spoken to Mr. Trudeau on the issue when the leaders met at the G-20 summit in Hamburg in July 2017, and in Manila on the sidelines of the East Asia summit.

“No one is asking the Trudeau government not to engage with the Sikh community that form their constituency, but why is it necessary to pander to extremist khalistani elements is the question,” Mr. Prakash said.

Gurdwaras announce ban

To add to the tensions, last month, 16 Canadian gurdwaras announced a “ban” on the entry of Indian elected officials, consular officials, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and Shiv Sena members, without any action from the Trudeau government.

Gurdwaras in the United States and the United Kingdom also followed suit. When asked, Canadian government officials cite “freedom of expression” issues to explain their stand.

Another sore point on the current visit was Mr. Trudeau’s insistence on taking along with him the Ministers in his Cabinet accused of sympathising with the Khalistan movement like Mr. Sajjan and Navdeep Singh Bains to Amritsar. Last year, Chief Minister Amarinder Singh refused to meet these Ministers, calling them “khalistanis”, and Mr. Trudeau’s decision to take them with him to Punjab appeared to have complicated plans to meet the Chief Minister, before the issue was resolved.

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