Justin Trudeau’s easy and infectious candour, all of it framed by his youthful looks, hasn’t ever missed its mark on overseas tours. At the Commonwealth leaders’ summit in 2015, even Queen Elizabeth wasn’t impervious to it. But, Trudeau’s week-long, first official visit to India did not quite go according to the Canadian script. Prime Minister Narendra Modi was not present at the Delhi airport to receive him and his family members—an expectation raised by the fact that the Indian Prime Minister had often broken protocol to receive many of his “valuable guests” at the time of their arrival with his famous bear-hug. That warm gesture, it’s given to understand, is reserved for India’s special friends. The Canadian prime minister either did not fall in that exalted category, or India wanted to convey a message that not only Canada, but even sympathisers of the Khalistani separatist cause in Canada, were supposed to pick up. If this was a perceived ‘snub’, it didn’t end here. Trudeau wasn’t welcomed on arrival by any of the chief ministers of the states he visited—Punjab, Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh and Maharashtra—though they met him later at other events. Moreover, his visit was overshadowed by that of Donald Trump Jr, who was in India on a business visit.
South Block denied that Trudeau was being snubbed; they said everything was governed by strict protocol. But a senior Indian diplomat acknowledged that the PM Modi didn’t go out of his way to break protocol, as with some others earlier. “The PM broke protocol for some visiting leaders, not all who come to the country,” he said. Modi’s absence made it clear that India took note of the growing practice of soft-pedalling pro-Khalistani elements in Canada.
‘Optics’ is crucially important in bilateral visits, and Trudeau got it right from the moment he emerged at his aeroplane’s door: the well-choreographed ‘namaste’ by all five members of his family on touchdown, the obligatory picture with his wife and children in Agra in the backdrop of the Taj Mahal, spinning the charkha at Gandhiji’s Sabarmati Ashram, trying his hand at making rotis at the Golden Temple langar with his wife and rubbing shoulders with Bollywood celebrities in Mumbai—the photogenic PM’s visit was not short of photo-ops.
Yet, even as Trudeau stressed that he and the Canadian government believed and supported the ‘unity of India’ and were not supporters of any secessionist groups, the slow crescendo of confident volubility of a Khalistan movement nurtured in Canada hung in the backdrop throughout his weeklong visit.
That phosphoric, unlovely shadow took solid shape in the person of convicted Khalistani terrorist Jaspal Atwal, who was photographed with the PM’s wife Sophie at a dinner event in Mumbai. Once a militant of the banned pro-Khalistan outfit, International Sikh Youth Federation, Atwal was convicted of the attempted murder of Punjab minister Malkiat Singh Sidhu on Vancouver Island in 1986. As the controversy created a media furore—it was reported that Atwal was included in the premier’s entourage—red-faced Canadian officials hurriedly managed to do some damage control, striking off Atwal’s name from the New Delhi reception cum dinner that Canadian High Commissioner Nadir Patel had organised for Trudeau on February 22.
The reason why a marked Khalistani like Atwal finds himself in the touring party of the top office-holder of the realm (Canada denied this) has to do with the cherished ideal of Canadian liberalism, with “freedom of expression” as its cornerstone. It’s that which has allowed a slow revival of the Khalistan spirit, seen in such acts as the banning of Indian officials and elected representatives from a number of Canadian gurudwaras, as also petitions and resolutions in a regional parliament. Outlook magazine, in its February 12 cover story, had red-flagged this area of concern for India (Panth And A Foreign Hand; A Few Queries, Just In...). This sparked off a series of reportage in national and foreign media, highlighting the closeness of Khalistani sympathisers to the Trudeau administration.
Yet, Canadian ‘liberalism’ has its limits. After this correspondent was extended an invitation (after the stories were published) to the February 22 reception with the PM in New Delhi—initially through email and later through a phone-call—it was withdrawn on the very eve of the event. Hours before the event, an email said that the invitation was “an error”; a phone call indicated that it was the PM’s advisors who instructed that Outlook be kept out. Even the newest face of world liberalism reacts with an autocratic response to critical reportage. Enough grounds for ‘freedom of speech’ to be suspended.
Indeed, throughout the visit, it was the Canadian PM’s friendly relations with pro-Khalistani and militant sections of the Sikh diaspora in Canada that dogged every step of his. The Indian government too, using strict ‘protocol’ norms, conveyed to Trudeau how his liberal policies were encouraging Sikh militants to revive a movement that effectively calls for the break-up of the Indian Union. Even Punjab CM Amarinder Singh expressed his concerns on the matter when he met Trudeau on February 21.
On February 23, when the two prime ministers and their delegations are scheduled to meet in New Delhi, this would be the issue that Modi would seek to convey candidly to his Canadian counterpart how his liberal policies were being misused by Sikh militants in Canada to revive the Khalistan movement, which has a history of using violence and terror to further their cause.
Trudeau must ponder if his ‘liberalism’ needs course correction so that Canada doesn’t become a launchpad for militancy.
As Trudeau heads back home, he will have enough time to ponder whether his ‘liberal’ policy needed urgent course correction to ensure Canada does not become the launch pad for Sikh militancy and the revival of the Khalistan movement.
While Trudeau’s inclusive policy of making different ethnic groups a stakeholder in the country’s progress has succeeded in making Canada a more pluralistic society, it leaves sufficient room for Sikh militants to revive the Khalistan cause. Demands for justice for the 1984 pogrom forms an emotional core for a large number of Sikhs in India and abroad. Its hijacking by a coterie of religious secessionists besmirches those sentiments. In India, too, it opens up painful memories that hark back to the bloody deaths of hundreds of people, the Kanishka tragedy, the killing of the then Indian prime minister and its bloody aftermath.