By: John Elliott

Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is flying back home after one of the most diplomatically accident-prone state visits by a foreign country’s leader to India for many years. 

Trudeau was ignored by Prime Minister Narendra Modi for four days. The government seemed to make no attempt to steer the media into positive coverage of the visit, and newspapers mocked the excessively flamboyant Indian “wedding attire” that Trudeau wore to several events that he turned into virtual family holiday outings. 

The Times of India February 23, 2018

This unexpected turn of events stemmed from Trudeau being unwilling before the visit to distance himself and his Liberal Party from Canadian Sikh radicals who campaign for the Indian state of Punjab to become an independent Sikh country called Khalistan.

He did however agree to a joint statement issued at the end of the visit on tackling terrorism that named the International Sikh Youth Federation, a Khalistani group, along with Pakistan based militant organisations

Sikhs are an important vote bank in Canada, where about 40 percent more than 1.3 million people of Indian origin have roots in Punjab. There are four Sikh ministers in the current cabinet, two with alleged Khalistani links (which they deny), and Trudeau has appeared publicly as Liberal Party leader with prominent Khalistan campaigners.

The extent of the links was demonstrated when an invitation to a celebration dinner at the Canadian High Commissioner’s Delhi home on February 22 went to Jaspal Atwal, a Canadian with a history of being a Khalistani supporter with the International Sikh Youth Federation, who had been photographed in Mumbai with Sophie, Trudeau’s wife, earlier in the visit. 

Atwal was convicted and sentenced to 20 years in jail for being involved with three others in an attempt to assassinate an Indian politician on a visit to Vancouver in 1986. The convictions were overturned because of the way evidence was obtained, and last year Atwal is reported to have been removed from an Indian home ministry “black list.”

Atwal’s dinner invitation caused considerable embarrassment till it was cancelled a few hours before the event. Trudeau told the media that one of his members of parliament “took full responsibility” for organizing the invitation and that the background would be investigated.

Modi and the Indian government are well acquainted with the pressures of vote bank politics, but they are considerably more sensitive about attempts to revive the Khalistani movement that rocked Punjab and Delhi during the 1980s. There was more than a decade of violence with 25,000 people being killed according to some estimates. 

Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards in 1984 after she had ordered troops into the Sikhs’ holiest shrine, the Golden Temple at Amritsar, to remove heavily armed Khalistani leaders who had turned the temple complex into a fortress. In 1985, Canadian Khalistani militants were accused in Canada of organising the bombing of an Air India Montreal-London flight that crashed into the Atlantic killing 330 people.

Trudeau arrived in Delhi with his wife and three young children on February 17 to be met by a junior minister in Modi’s government (the minister of state for agriculture), which was in line with protocol but was far below the welcome some foreign leaders receive – Modi even went to Delhi airport to greet Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last month.

Modi didn’t even issue one of his welcoming tweets, nor was there any other sign of a greeting while the Trudeaus visited Punjab, Gujarat and Mumbai. Finally, on February 21 when the family was back in Delhi, Modi tweeted that he was looking forward to meeting Trudeau. By then, the media had decided that the visit was being given a cold shoulder, and government spokesmen only made low key attempts to deny did there were any snubs.

C.Raja Mohan, a leading foreign affairs commentator and head of Carnegie India, wrote in an Indian Express column headlined “Canadian bathos: Justin Trudeau’s vote-banks”  on February 20: “Delhi is struggling to make sense of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s political indulgence of Sikh extremists in Canada…… Delhi is disappointed that despite its repeated efforts, including at the highest political levels, to flag the question of Sikh separatism in Canada, Ottawa has seemed reluctant to address India’s concerns.”

That firm wording indicates that Mohan knew he was reflecting the government’s view, as he no doubt was when he wrote: “Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who is more than eager to serenade visiting leaders in his home state, Gujarat, did not travel to Ahmedabad to be with Trudeau on Monday. This underlines the new cooling that is enveloping the relationship.”

Mohan said there was worry that Trudeau’s trip could “turn out to be the worst diplomatic disaster in India” since Queen Elizabeth’s visit in 1997. She had come to celebrate India’s 50th anniversary of Independence, but the visit was blighted by a series of diplomatic and other upsets.

In Punjab, Trudeau visited the Golden Temple and was received by the Congress Chief Minister Amarinder Singh, who last year had refused to meet Canada’s Sikh Defence Minister, Harjit Singh Sajjan, when he was visiting India because of his “Khalistan links.” This time both the defence minister and another alleged Khalistani sympathiser minister pledged their support for a united India and were part of Trudeau’s Punjab entourage

Trudeau told Amarinder Singh he supported a united India and gave a “categorical assurance” that Canada, which has had its own separatist problems in Quebec, does not support such movements. The chief minister responded by handing over a list of the names of nine Canadian Sikhs allegedly involved in financing and supplying weapons to Punjab militants.

The Punjab would-be insurgency was wiped out by strong police action in the early 1990s, when the vast mass of the population had tired of the violence and wanted to focus on economic growth.

The cause of Khalistan however still has supporters in Punjab where it figures in the murky politics of both the state and the Sikh religion. The Indian government believes that Pakistan is sheltering some Sikh militants and is ready to provide bases for them to infiltrate across the border into Punjab, as it did in the 1980s and is now doing in Kashmir.

Abroad, supporters are most active in Canada though they also exist in the UK and elsewhere, often mobilizing support and funds through local politics and Sikh gurdwaras, or temples. As often happens with diasporas, their views do not keep pace with changes in their home country. Drugs and unemployment are the main issues in Punjab, not independence from India. “Trudeau Will Take Back an Important Lesson: Sikhs in Canada and Punjab Don’t Think Alike” was the headline on a Wire.in news website story.

The Indian government has been trying to shake off the legacy of the 1980s by reducing the “black list,” as happened with Atwal, and there have also been talks recently between the two countries’ national security advisers about combating Sikh radicalism. But these did not apparently lead to Trudeau adjusting his public position on Khalistani radicals enough to placate his Indian hosts. 

The mood eased on February 23 when Trudeau was given an official state visit welcome in the forecourt of the president’s palace. Modi gave him one of his now familiar hugs and was photographed with the Trudeau family (left and above). 

Trudeau then had official meetings with the Indian government, including nearly two hours of talks with Modi, after which six memoranda of understanding on commercial, security (including the militants Sikhs reference) and other topics were signed. 

Both leaders pledged to work with each other but, as he flies out, Trudeau will no doubt be wondering how to deal with his Khalistani supporters back home, having been told by Modi, speaking in Hindi at a joint press conference after the talks, that “there should be no space for those who misuse religion for political motives and promote separatism.”

“We will not tolerate those who challenge unity and integrity of our countries,” declared Modi

Leaving aside the point that Modi’s critics will say that he and his Hindu nationalist supporters misuse religion for political motives to the detriment of Muslims, this is a clear enough warning of the price for future cooperation between these two historically friendly countries.

John Elliott is Asia Sentinel’s Delhi correspondent.  He blogs at Riding the Elephant.