Diplomatic tensions began with the banning of Indian diplomats from a Gurudwara in Brampton, Ontario.
Eyebrows were raised in both Canada and India when Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was received by a junior ranking agriculture minister when he arrived in New Delhi. It was the clearest signal from Delhi about the growing unease in the Indo-Canadian relations over the Khalistani question.
Sikhs are an important political force in Canada, which is testified by the presence of four Sikh ministers in Trudeau’s cabinet. Maintaining strong ties with India is a necessary condition for maintaining the Sikh voter base across Canada. Furthermore, the emergence of India as the world’s sixth largest economy, coupled with the uncertainty over the continuity of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and Trudeau’s disastrous trip to China, heightens his need to get Canada’s trade relationship with India right.
In this context, Trudeau’s cold reception by the Modi government is causing concern among Canadian political observers. Some are already calling Trudeau’s Indian trip as an abject failure and a family trip on taxpayer money.
Candice Malcolm, who is a columnist for the conservative newspaper, The Sun, unleashed a scathing attack on Trudeau for messing up Canada’s relationship with India. Contrasting Modi’s personal welcome of leaders from the US, Israel, and UAE, she thought that the cold reception received by Trudeau was a setback for Indo-Canadian relations. She even questioned the very purpose of Trudeau’s trip to India, calling it a futile trip costing millions and meant for only partisan vote-seeking. Malcolm points out that Trudeau, hailed as a global liberal icon, is used to receiving superstar welcomes during official state visits. His on-going trip to India would come as a setback to Trudeau’s global reputation.
Former premier of British Columbia and minister of health, Ujjal Dosanj told CBC News, “It was obvious from the kind of reception he got there, that the government of India is somewhat cool to him… and he needs to deal with the issue of Khalistani separatists.”
He pointed out that the beginning of this diplomatic row was the official letter sent to Capt. Amrinder Singh by the Canadian foreign minister – telling him that he was not welcome in Canada to address the Punjabi diaspora. Seeing Trudeau’s announcement of a meeting with Capt. Singh as a welcome sign, he stressed that even in the past, Canadian political class had played ‘footisie’ with Sikh separatists and Canada had no business to interfere in Indian affairs either directly or indirectly.
Most of the other liberal media outlets have ignored this Trudeau’s diplomatic embarrassment. Trudeau did make a statement on his trip to Mumbai Monday, stating that Canada stands for a “united India.”
On the other side, Jatinder Singh Grewal a supporter of the Khalistani cause and a proponent of the ‘Referendum 2020’ movement told CBC News that Trudeau’s job was to stand up against India’s pressure tactics and support the Khalistani movement in Canada. “India uses fear against family members, people that are in Canada, they deny them visas, and family members in India are intimidated over their jobs, their personal safety, and various methods are used so people become silent in the diaspora,” he said.
A few recent events seem to have heightened the diplomatic tensions between the two states.
First, the banning of Indian diplomats from a Gurudwara in Brampton, Ontario – home to a sizeable Sikh population. This ban originating in a single Brampton Gurudwara has now spread across Canada and to the US and UK.
Second, the arrest of Scottish Sikh Jagtar Singh Johal in Punjab last November. Police authorities in India have linked Johal to the killings of certain members of right-wing outfits in India.
Lastly, and most importantly, the support of Johal by Canada’s newly elected leader of National Democratic Party (NDP), Jagmeet Singh.
Jagmeet Singh is a Sikh political leader who was recently elected as the leader of the NDP. Singh has unambiguously asked for the release of Johal and was subsequently denied the Indian visa. Trudeau’s party fears that the rise of Singh will lead to the transfer of Sikh votes from their party to the NDP. Therefore, Trudeau’s increased public support for Sikh separatists in Canada is a direct consequence of simple electoral competition.
Uncertainty about his Sikh vote-bank has led Trudeau to take up an ambiguous stand on the Khalistan question and Canada’s relationship with India. Trudeau has said that Canada supports a unified India and is opposed to extremism. But on the grounds of free speech, he supports the rights of Sikhs to speak up for their cause of separatism.
Observers privy to Trudeau’s politics are used to him taking ambiguous stands on various issues. Interestingly, as Canadian political observers point out, on matters of Sikh extremism, the Trudeau government in 2018 sounds a lot like the former PM Harper’s government in 2012.
Srijan Shukla is a student of comparative politics and international relations at McGill University.