Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is on a week-long visit to India since February 17, 2018. He and his wife Sophie Gregoire Trudeau, and their three children, Xavier, Ella-Grace, and Hadrien, after arriving in Delhi have travelled to Agra, Ahmedabad and Mumbai. They will also visit Amritsar on February 21. Trudeau will be back in Delhi on February 22, but will have to wait another day to meet and hold discussions with his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi on bilateral issues like civil nuclear cooperation, space, defence, energy and education.
(PM Modi hugs former US president Barack Obama on his arrival in New Delhi)
It is very surprising that a high-profile world leader like Trudeau is in the country, but Modi who usually travels extra miles to not to miss a photo opportunity like this, seems to be avoiding any non-scheduled meeting this time.
(PM Modi welcomes Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu)
When Trudeau arrived in India, Modi had sent his junior agriculture minister Gajendra Singh Shekhawat to receive him at the airport. It is very surprising, particularly when Trudeau’s own agriculture minister Lawrence MacAulay is not even part of his delegation. Trudeau went to Agra to see Taj Mahal, no central leader accompanied him, even UP Chief Minister was not there to receive him. Modi, who takes pride in taking world leaders to his home state Gujarat, was even absent when Trudeau travelled to Ahmedabad next day.
(PM Modi hugs former president of France François Hollande)
Modi had celebrated his 64th Birthday at Ahmedabad with China’s President Xi Jinping on 17 September 2014. Three years later, Modi not only took Japanese Prime Minister to Ahmedabad but also held a grand road show for him. Last month, he also treated Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to another road show in Ahmedabad. But, when Trudeau went with his family to visit Sabarmati Ashram in Ahmedabad and Akshardham temple in Gandhi Nagar, even Gujarat Chief Minister Vijay Rupani was also not with him.
(Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his family at Gandhi Ashram in Sabarmati on Monday)
Just before his departure from Gujarat, Rupani met him at the city airport. Not only Modi and his party leaders, even large section of Indian media close to the regime is ignoring Trudeau’s visit as well.
Whatever the diplomatic spin might be given by the officials of both the countries, there is no doubt that the Modi regime is categorically and systematically snubbing the Prime Minister of Canada. This cold-shoulder to Trudeau is being seen as Narendra Modi’s strong arm tactic for his and his party’s soft-corner for diaspora groups promoting Sikh-independence movement. It is true that Trudeau’s liberal party draws a significant support from the Sikh-Canadian vote bank and some of his ministers are sympathetic to Khalistan cause. Nearly 500,000 Canadian Sikhs live in Canada. Jagmeet Singh’s election as leader of the Canada’s New Democratic Party (NDP) in October 2017 has also brought serious competition for Trudeau to protect his Sikh vote bank.
(PM Modi with Chinese President Xi Jinping at Gandhi Ashram at Sabarmati)
Trudeau is not only seeking the support of Canadian Sikhs, he is also doing whatever he can to win over rest of the Indian diaspora as well. In his India visit, his trips to religious places not only include Golden Temple in Amritsar, but also Akshardham temple in Gandhi Nagar and Jama Masjid in Delhi. Canada not only hosts a large Sikh population, but also home to a larger Indian diaspora community. There are nearly 1.2 million Persons of Indian Origin live in Canada, comprising 3.6 percent of Canada’s total population. India is Canada’s second largest source of immigrants after China. At present, in Canada’s House of Commons with total strength of 338, there are 21 members of Indian origin, including 4 ministers in Trudeau’s cabinet. So, for Trudeau, Indian diaspora is not limited to Khalistan dreaming Sikhs only.
Moreover, it is wrong to blame Trudeau for the growing separatism among the Canadian Sikh community. He only wants the Sikh votes like any other politician. Though Sikh militancy has somewhat disappeared in India in mid-1990s, still it continued to exist in Sikh Diaspora, particularly in Canada. However, there was always a division among the Sikh diaspora over the issue of support to separatist struggle. The support for extremist view had gradually declined, particularly after Manmohan Singh became the Prime Minister of India. But, after Hindutva forces came to power in India, the Sikhs in Canada seem to start rethink their position. Trudeau has nothing do with the changing strategy of Sikh diaspora in Canada. It is Modi, who should blame himself for it.
(PM Modi welcomes the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan)
Minorities in India are getting increasingly apprehensive of the growing power of Hindu chauvinist forces and that has given new hope to diaspora to dream of Khalistan again. Not only Sikhs, Hindus among Indian diaspora in Canada have become politically very active in the recent years as well. By promoting the importance of Hindu diaspora Modi has also instigated the Sikh diaspora to mobilize strongly to promote a separate Sikh identity and demand for a separate homeland. Sikh diaspora groups in Canada have even banned RSS members to enter into their Gurudwaras. Modi government’s repeated snubs to Trudeau and his delegation of mostly Sikh ministers will not only deteriorate bilateral relations, but also will create further animosity between Sikhs and Hindu diaspora groups in Canada.
Though Punjab’s Chief Minister Amarinder Singh had refused to meet Trudeau’s defense minister Harjit Sajjan last year accusing him of being a Khalistani sympathizer, has tweeted on 19 February evening welcoming Trudeau’s visit to Amritsar and conforming his meeting with him. This is what expected from a responsible political leader. The strategic significance of Indo-Canadian relations is too valuable to be limited to diaspora issue only. Canada and India might be far away from each other geographically but both have much in common. Both the countries are former British colonies and members of the Commonwealth. Both the countries are also rooted in ideas of democracy, federalism and multi-culturalism.
Moreover, Canada and India have strong economic and diplomatic cooperation. Trade between Canada and India has doubled in the last ten years, reaching to almost $8 billion. Canadian Pension Funds have invested more than $15 billion in India and planning to do more. More than 125,000 Indian students go to Canada for higher studies every year. Since 1970s, India is using Canadian technology in its nuclear program. In 2015, Canada agreed to supply uranium to India. Both the countries have strong cooperation in the areas of counter terrorism, defense and security sectors. At this point, Canada does not need India as much as India needs Canada to pursue its economic and diplomatic journey to seek for itself a global role.
Canada’s population might be less than Odisha’s, but its economy is 10th largest in the world. Canada’s development assistance budget is 8th largest among donor countries. Canada is one of the humanitarian superpowers of the world. It has a powerful voice among the community of nations for long. Justin Trudeau is also a global superstar and has a huge good will among the world leaders. It is nothing but hubris on the part of Modi government to deliberately devalue Trudeau’s visit to India. Even if Modi government is concerned about growing Sikh separatism in Canada, it is basic commonsense that India will gain more in maintaining a friendly-working relationship with Trudeau administration than deliberately igniting a hostile one.
(The writer is professor of Peace and Conflict Research at Uppsala University, Sweden. The views are personal)