Historically, Canada and India have not enjoyed amicable relations. These have soured further as a result of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s visit to India, despite signing agreements to cooperate in various fields, from technology to education. Normally, following a visit by the leader of one country to another, relations between the countries improve but this is not the case here.
Yet while Canada-India relations may have taken a dive, Trudeau’s stock back home has risen among some.
Canada and India have not enjoyed trusted and friendly relations since Canada accused India of diverting CANDU material acquired for peaceful nuclear use to make a nuclear bomb. Following India’s nuclear test of 1974, Canada withdrew from India’s civilian nuclear program.
This past week, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi was not at the Delhi airport to welcome Prime Minister Just Trudeau and his six cabinet ministers. Modi tweeted Trudeau a welcome only five days of the start of the visit. Furthermore, Modi met Trudeau only on the last day of the prime minister’s visit. This is not the stuff of diplomacy between two friendly countries.
The Trudeau visit was hijacked by the Khalistan issue: the desire of dissatisfied Sikhs to carve an independent state from present-day India, with borders similar to the existing state of Punjab, to be called Khalistan.
The underlying issue for the current Khalistan drama is the denial of a visitor’s visa, in April 2016, to Capt. Amarinder Singh, now the Chief Minister of Punjab State. Singh was in opposition then and was suspected of coming to Canada to fundraise for his election campaign. He sees current Canadian-Sikh cabinet ministers as having played a role in the denial of the visitor visa.
In an October 2016 letter to Trudeau, Singh said he felt a “gag order” had been issued against him and sought to know the grounds on which permission to visit Canada had been denied him. Canada’s policy is that it “will not allow foreign governments to conduct election campaigns in Canada or establish foreign political parties and movements in Canada.” Singh turned the visa refusal into a personal vendetta against Trudeau and his ministers.
Indian government officials – including Punjab Chief Minister Singh – even have had the audacity to lecture Trudeau about harbouring Khalistan sympathizers in his cabinet. Does India now wish to decide who sits at the Canadian cabinet table? Indian government officials have raised the issue of support for Khalistan in Canada with every visiting senior Canadian official over the last three decades. Little do the Indians realize that Canadians have freedom to express support for an independent Scotland, Catalonia, a united Ireland and even for Quebec to secede from Canada, as long as violence is not advocated.
There is no love lost among many Sikhs in Canada and their ancestral home, India. Many came to Canada as refugees. Hundreds of innocent Sikh worshippers were killed in 1984 when the Indian Army attacked the Sikhs’ holy place, the Golden Temple, on a day of religious celebration. In retaliation, Sikh bodyguards killed Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, which in turn resulted in the killing of thousands of innocent Sikhs, including children and women, in New Delhi and across the country. The Ontario legislature last year passed a motion calling these killing of Sikhs in India in 1984 a genocide.
A couple of years ago, while responding to a question at the American University in Washington, Trudeau joked: “I have more Sikh Ministers than Modi.” The remark must have rattled Modi.
The recent election of Jagmeet Singh, of Sikh faith, as NDP leader, is another factor weighing on the minds of Liberal strategists as they eye the next federal election. The NDP under Jagmeet Singh will siphon votes from the Liberals, especially in closely contested urban ridings. Some are wondering whether Trudeau’s trip was to prove that he is more “Sikh than Jagmeet.” The Indian government a few years ago denied a visa to Jagmeet Singh for speaking out against human rights abuses in India.
The Trudeau-Modi meeting, on the last day of Trudeau’s week-long visit, tried to patch up things but the damage to Canada-India relations is done.
Trudeau, however, should be pleased with the positive response from another group in Canada to his India trip. The Canadian Sikh community sees him as a hero who responded in a cool manner to India’s awkward welcome.