Making A Difference

With Bitter Maple Syrup

Justin Trudeau’s comments in favour of farmers’ protests angers India. It’s another instance of the Canadian PM privileging domestic politics over better ties with India.

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With Bitter Maple Syrup
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Ever since his disastrous trip to India in 2018, Candian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s ties with the Indian political class have been marked by a frosty distance. That ice will have thickened further, as Trudeau’s remarks on the farmers’ protests in India has led to a diploma­tic stand-off between India and Canada, with New Delhi warning that such action would damage bilateral ties. While India’s initial reaction to the remarks—made while greeting the Sikh community on Guru Nanak’s birthday (December 1)—was routine, asking Ottawa to keep out of its domestic affairs, it later hardened its position in keeping with the BJP government’s muscular foreign policy. It was made clear that Canada had to pay a price for what New Delhi believed was a transgression of diplomatic protocol.

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MEA spokesman Anurag Srivastava dubbed the comments made by other Canadian leaders at the event as “ill-informed’’ and “unwarranted”, but did not name Trudeau.  But three days later, Canada’s envoy in New Delhi Nadir Patel was summoned and a dem­arche handed over. The government made its displeasure public too. Referring to remarks made by Trudeau, his cabinet colleagues and other lawmakers on the farmer’s agitation, the MEA said in a statement: “Such actions, if continued, would have a seriously damaging impact on ties between India and Canada. These comments have encouraged gatherings of extremist activities in front of our high commission and consulates in Canada that raise issues of safety…. We expect the Canadian government to ensure the fullest security of Indian diplomatic personnel and its political leaders to refrain from pronouncements that legitimise extremist activism. ’’ The diplomatic spat immediately scored a casualty: foreign minister S. Jaishankar pulled out of a video conference on COVID-9 chaired by Canada.

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“There will be a diplomatic and political fallout, it cannot be business as usual after this. Trudeau has once again engaged in political opportunism,” says Vishnu Prakash, former Indian high commissioner to Canada. “But strong people-to-people links bet­ween the two countries will continue to thrive,” he asserts.

India-Canada ties have long been held hostage to the Khalistan issue. Though the movement for an independent Sikh nation petered out in India, the Sikh diaspora in Canada (and in the UK and the US) were strong supporters and some elements still hope for the miraculous resurgence of their discredited cause. Though there was never any active political support for Khalistan, Canada much like the UK turned a blind eye to the activities of Khalistani extremists (terrorism being a low priority area those days). Khalistan backers living abroad believe that Sikhs in India got a raw deal from successive Indian governments and are ready to cajole their local MPs to mouth their concerns. Protests in support of the farmers’ agitation—opp­ortunistically conflated by these elements to their pet issue due to a high number of protesting farmers being from Punjab—were not confined to Canada. Sikhs demonstrated in front of the Indian high commission in London. The fact that 36 British MPs have written to foreign secretary Dominic Raab, calling for a meeting to “discuss the deteriorating situation in the Punjab and its relationship with the Centre”, shows the political clout of the Sikh diaspora. The letter adds that the protests “are of particular concern to Sikhs in the UK”. The UN also weighed in, with a spokesman saying, “People have a right to demonstrate peacefully and authorities need to let them do so.’’

Canadian Sikhs, though just over two per cent of the population, are a well-knit community and punch way above their weight in electoral politics. In as many as 8 to 14 parliamentary constituencies (out of 338 in the Canadian parliament), Sikhs constitute a sizeable majority.

Gurudwaras play an important role in the lives of Canadian Sikhs. The community donates generously to them, with nearly 80 per cent of gur­udwaras controlled by people who have close links to Punjab and are reg­arded as Khalistani supporters by Indian authorities. Nearly 80 per cent of Sikhs vote for liberals and are particularly loyal to Trudeau. Apart from funds, young Sikhs work as volunteers and go for door-to-door campaigns for the Liberal Party. Most of the community is concentrated around Toronto, Calgary and Vancouver. Thus, it is not surprising that PM Trudeau, with an eye on his support base, spoke in support of the peaceful protests by Punjab farmers. Not just the impulse to keep his herd together, Trudeau heads a minority government and, with his popularity growing since the pandemic, there is speculation about a mid-term poll. Trudeau needs the solid backing of Canadian Sikhs to get a majority.

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Of course, there’s the shadow of that terrible week-long visit to India too. New Delhi ruthlessly cold-shouldered him as Jaspal Atwal, a former Sikh terrorist once convicted of the att­empted murder of a Punjab politician visiting Canada, was part of his official delegation. When an outraged Delhi raised this point, Trudeau hastily dropped him, but the damage already done was exacerbated with photographs emerging of the two together taken over the years. Trudeau limply visited Agra and the Golden Temple and met Prime Minister Narendra Modi on his way out.

Back home, the Canadian press hammered Trudeau. He tried to make amends. In late 2018, in a document on security published by the government—the Public Report on the Terrorism Threat to Canada—it was noted: “Some individuals in Canada continue to support Sikh (Khalistani) extremist ideologies and movements.’’

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This sop for Indian feelings angered Sikhs; there was an uproar over the mention of Khalistani extremists. The revolt hit its mark. In April 2019, a rev­ised version of the security report omitted all references to Khalistani ext­remists. Only then was Trudeau’s Sikh support base mollified.   

Of course, there are limits to Trudeau’s indulgence—a call by Sikhs for Justice, a separatist outfit, for a referendum on Punjab in July 2019, was rejected. A government spokesman declared:  “Canada respects the sovereignty, unity and territorial integrity of India and the government of Canada will not recognise the referendum.’’ That helped pacify New Delhi; relations were looking up when Jaishankar visited Ottawa last December. All that good work is now undone.

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Prime Minister Trudeau, though a global poster boy for liberals for championing causes from Black Lives Matter and climate change to commitment to human rights, is unp­opular with the Indian establishment for allowing his domestic priorities to get the better of him. In this, however, he is not alone. Indian politicians are not immune to the habit—constantly flagging, for example, the issue of “illegal Bangladeshi immigrants” during elections.  

“All politicians play to their domestic politics, but Trudeau has privileged his domestic priorities over the commitment to India-Canada relations,’’ says Harsh Pant of the Observer Research Foundation. “There is always a price to pay for this and I doubt India-Canada ties will make much headway so long as Trudeau remains Prime Minister.”

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