Jalandhar-born former Premier of British Columbia, Canada, says ‘freedom of expression’ excuse won’t work if politicians share the stage with separatists.
Chandigarh: Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s trip to India has been under the scanner for the ‘cold shoulder’ the Narendra Modi government seems to have given to him. Purportedly, the reason for this cold shoulder is Trudeau’s perceived patronage to supporters of a separate Sikh nation of Khalistan.
Jalandhar-born Ujjal Dosanjh, the former Premier of the Canadian province of British Columbia, who also served as the country’s minister of health, says this is a clear sign that politicians in his country need to stop hobnobbing with Khalistan supporters and sympathisers for their own political gains. Excerpts from an interview with ThePrint:
What you think has gone wrong with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s trip to India?
Things started going wrong some time ago, not with this trip. A year ago, when Captain Amarinder Singh was still the opposition leader and the Punjab elections were some months away, he wanted to visit Canada to meet and speak with the diaspora. Traditionally, over the decades, politicians of all stripes from Punjab have visited Canada, the USA and the UK to reconnect and converse with the diaspora.
The government of Canada, through its foreign minister, wrote him a letter that he could come but not speak with the diaspora – not address public meetings or gurudwara congregations.
A separatist outfit called Sikhs for Justice had approached the government of Canada and its ministers to keep Singh out of Canada. The entire government was in the know and agreed with what the foreign minister had written to Amarinder Singh. That is the origin of the current controversy.
As a result, Amarinder criticised Trudeau for having Khalistanis in his cabinet. He gave voice to what was known or perceived by many people inside and outside Canada to be true. There has been a perception, to a large extent based on experience in the minds of many here, that Trudeau’s government has several Khalistanis or Khalistani supporters in his party and government. Despite knowing that such a perception existed, the government of Canada did not take that criticism well and did not respond to it. They had insulted the leader of the opposition of the Punjab Legislative Assembly, a former chief minister of Punjab, and they didn’t seem to care.
Yet, the government of Canada must have had some sense of this discomfort on the part of India. Perhaps that is why before departing from Canada for this trip, the government of Canada had two of its four Sikh ministers publicly say that they were not sympathisers of Khalistan or Khalistanis themselves.
Having bought some cover from the common perception, Amarinder’s criticism and PM Modi’s recent expression of concern around the issue of Khalistanis in Canada and their activities allegedly made known to PM Trudeau in Davos, the government of Canada reverted to its previous posture vis-a-vis Amarinder Singh and proceeded to again insult him. A news story had it that he would be their tour guide at the Golden Temple and that he was looking forward to welcoming PM Trudeau to Punjab and the Golden Temple. But the government of Canada let it be known publically that Trudeau’s party was not interested in meeting him.
When French President Charles de Gaulle came in 1967 to the expo in Quebec, he raised the slogan of Vive le Québec libre (Long live free Quebec!).The government of Canada was upset and Charles de Gaulle had to leave Canada right away. When Canada has a history like that, Mr Trudeau should have been more mindful, at least more alert, to anxieties and concerns of a country like India, which has an ancient and more complex diversity than Canada.
The government of Canada, by its actions before and during the trip, has shown itself to be substantially insensitive to the concerns of India around Khalistanis and their activities in Canada. It failed to realise that no Prime Minister of India could afford to ignore the deliberate snubbing, not just once but twice, of the chief minister of Punjab, a sensitive state in terms of geopolitics, it being next to Pakistan.
That is my sense of why the trip has gone the way it has. By the way, I read somewhere that when former Prime Minister of Canada Stephen Harper came to India, he got a similar reception at the airport at least, and Harper-Modi relations were better. So it may or may not be a snub on part of the government of India vis-a-vis Trudeau. I don’t know; I am not there, and therefore unable to address it more intelligently.
Do you think pro-Khalistan activities have increased in the past few years in Canada?
I heard one of the cabinet ministers say there is no Khalistan movement here. But only recently, many temples have collectively banned the entry of Indian diplomats. So, for anyone to say that there is no demand for Khalistan in Canada is to simply deny the reality. That is an ostrich-like existence some people have. The fact is that there has been talk and demand of Khalistan emanating from Canada since before Operation Blue Star; there was a demand for Khalistan in Canada in the seventies when there was none in India, and it has never stopped.
It has now become more sophisticated and more entrenched. It is reflected in the membership of all major political parties at their highest levels. They are more active in politics because they believe it is one way of creating trouble for India. If you manage to come to power one way or the other in Canada, you can tell India off. It is a clear strategy.
The current leader of the New Democratic Party, Jagmeet Singh, was quoted in a documentary saying that he got into politics to deal with 1984. I am assuming that he may not say that today, but there is an earlier clip of him saying this.
Do you think the first 48 hours of Trudeau’s trip have led to anything fruitful? It seems to many like a family holiday.
From my perspective, it is a tradition that occasionally prime ministers of Canada take their families on such trips. I don’t think that is a concern at all. Speaking to students at the Ahmedabad Institute, visiting Mahatma Gandhi’s ashram… those are all important symbols of Canada being interested in India. When Prime Minister Trudeau goes to these places, it is Canada going there, and those things are important in the life of India. I don’t think that is a problem.
The problem so far has been that this trip has not amounted to anything more serious than that. That may be a concern in Canada. But I am assuming that the meeting with Prime Minister Modi will take place in the coming days, and hopefully, they will discuss substantive issues like trade and infrastructure. Right now trade potential between India and Canada is largely unexploited. It is barely eight billion dollars a year, and could go up to 80 billion dollars.
On the Khalistan issue, what do you think is the way ahead?
Canada and its politicians must stop hiding behind this ‘freedom of expression’ business. Canadian leaders say freedom of expression allows Sikhs to demand Khalistan peacefully, which I am fine with. I will not quibble with that. That isn’t a problem. That is what democracies are about.
The problem is that the politicians at the highest level in this country, of all major political parties, have hobnobbed with Khalistanis. In parades, where you have posters of Talwinder Singh Parmar, the mass murderer of the Air India bombing being paraded around, you have politicians appearing on stages.
If you left Khalistanis to their devices, no one would object. But when politicians actively turn a blind eye to what is going on, or actively adorn separatist stages and their events, attend temples where these posters hang, one is led to conclude that they really don’t care if they are giving succour and sustenance to those threatening the unity and integrity of another country.
Do you expect Trudeau to make a statement over the Khalistani issue?
I have only been reading what is appearing in the Canadian press. I think he will say that Canada believes in the integrity and unity of India. Beyond that, he may say something about the freedom of expression.
But none of those two is the real issue. The nub of the problem is that politicians have been playing footsy with the Khalistanis themselves for their own political ends. That must end. I would urge the government of India to make that clear to them. I would like Canadian politicians to play it straight on this issue when in Canada too.
The problem is that these politicians are wilfully blind to their own support of the Khalistanis in being at their events or events where Khalistan is being propagated, and they actively seek their support to win elections.
What do you foresee will be the impact of Trudeau’s trip to India on Canadian politics?
A majority of people here don’t vote for Khalistan or no Khalistan. It is not an election issue. What politicians worry about are volunteers and money. In that sense, there may be a race between Trudeau and Jagmeet Singh to woo the Khalistani element. Jagmeet Singh has talked about faith-based right to self-determination. So there may be a struggle here, and Trudeau may be conscious of the fact that Jagmeet may drain some of his past support.
Do you think this trip will change Trudeau’s view of the Khalistani movement in Canada and, in turn, change his policies?
I have been arguing for a long time that politicians should not hobnob with pro-Khalistan separatists. Canadian politics should be free of this nonsense. Khalistanis can ask for Khalistan, for all I care, they can have it in Alberta, there is lots of land.
From my perspective, I hope following this trip Trudeau may be better informed about India’s sensitivity to Khalistanis and their tacit support to and by the politicians of Canada.