This was Canadian PM Justin Trudeau’s first trip to India (in the second half of February) as prime minister, and it started off by making headlines for all the wrong reasons.
In the first four days of his visit, Trudeau did not meet any senior Indian government minister. Instead of expected protocol formalities, he was greeted by a junior Indian minister. The fact that the two leaders didn’t meet -- and hug -- until seven days into the trip, the second-last day, played out in stark contrast with the recent visit of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in January, when he was greeted with a trademark bear hug by Modi immediately upon landing in Delhi.
Nevertheless, as expected, the right-wing ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) denied any disrespect to the visiting leader and Seshadri Chari, member of the National Executive Committee of the BJP explained to the media that: “I don’t think this is any kind of snub. India values its relationship with Canada highly.”
Media analysts monitoring the situation have, however, alleged that such a response to Trudeau’s arrival was partially due to allegations that Canada backs Sikh separatist groups. It has also been reported that the Canadian political establishment across the spectrum -- the NDP, Conservatives, and Liberals -- has been mollycoddling Khalistani elements.
Apparently, under the Trudeau government, this has increased and Trudeau himself has been reported of having appeared on a Khalistani platform in Toronto in April last year. Consequently, the spectre of Sikh separatism and alleged Canadian state support hung heavy over the trip that was meant to strengthen business and defense ties between the two countries.
It may be mentioned here that Canada boasts 17 Sikh members of parliament and that immigrant of Sikh origin account for roughly 1.4% of Canada’s population of 36 million. It has also been noted that Trudeau had once joked that he had more Sikhs in his cabinet than Modi.
New Delhi-based political analyst Krishan Pratap Singh has however commented in this regard that “the Khalistan issue” or the demand for a separate state for Indian Sikhs was only “a red herring” aimed at diverting attention from the main issue, which was a complete lack of personal and political chemistry between Prime Minister Modi and his Canadian counterpart. He told Al Jazeera: “Modi’s narrow Hindutva nationalism and Trudeau’s liberal global vision doesn’t mesh very well.”
Trudeau’s response to this evolving drama was very mature
While speaking in the Indian city of Ahmedabad, Trudeau said Canada “recognised and supported a united India,” dismissing the allegations that his country supported separatist forces.
However, he also pointed out that: “I think part of Canada’s strength is that we recognize that diversity is strength and a wide range of opinions and views are an important part of the success of Canada.”
During the meeting in Amritsar, a city in the state of Punjab, Trudeau “conveyed his support for a united India, stressing the desire to see positive collaboration on issues of mutual concern.”
Trudeau also hammered home the pressing need to share the existing commitment to strengthen people-to-people ties through “our” cultural and ethnic diversity.
From the viewpoint of Bangladesh, it was important to know that the issue of Rohingya from Myanmar figured during the talks between Modi and his Canadian counterpart
Boparai from the non-profit World Sikh Organization has also taken this opportunity to add that the Indian allegations about expatriate Sikhs trying to destabilize Indian unity are “baseless” and have never been “substantiated with actual evidence.”
He also added that “India has trouble accepting criticism from minority groups and tends to label calls for accountability ‘anti-national’ or ‘extremist.’
As a democracy, India must realize that human rights are critical and cannot be dismissed by trying to malign or marginalize those seeking justice.”
Mukhbir Singh, the group’s president, has also stated that “the Sikh community in Canada is incredibly engaged in every facet of Canadian life, and there is nothing to indicate any rise in radicalism.”
Riots and allegiance
Interestingly, in recent months, Sikh temples in Canada, the US, and Australia have banned some Indian officials from visiting gurudwaras, alleging interference by such officials. The arrest and detention in November, 2017 of Jagtar Singh Johal, a Scottish Sikh activist associated with justice for the 1984 anti-Sikh riots, has also created a storm among the Sikh diaspora who have campaigned for his release.
Johal allegedly is being investigated for conspiracy to murder prominent right-wing Hindu leaders.
These comments clearly indicate that the Canadian government as well as the expatriate Sikh community residing in Canada as well as the US is trying its best to downplay any rift with India over the Sikh issue.
The two leaders of Canada and India finally met at the Rashtrapati Bhavan in Delhi a day before the Canadian leader’s visit would end. The meeting came a day after Canada withdrew an invitation to an alleged Sikh extremist, Jaspal Atwal, to attend an official dinner with Mr Trudeau in Delhi.
Modi and Trudeau, at ease, discussed issues related to trade, defense, climate change, and also cooperation over civil nuclear energy. Mr Trudeau also met Indian Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj. Before concluding the visit, relevant Canadian and Indian representatives inked six pacts associated with the following sectors -- sports, education, and energy.
There was also agreement to work together and share information related to defense cooperation, terrorism, and extremism.
India and Canada also decided to broaden and deepen social and economic ties. In this context, India welcomed the possibility of facilitating further efforts by the Canada Pension Fund, already a large investor in India, to expand its areas of activity.
This last decision has been particularly welcomed by business houses in Mumbai, Chennai, and New Delhi.
From the viewpoint of Bangladesh, it was important to know that the issue of Rohingya from Myanmar figured during the talks between Modi and his Canadian counterpart. A joint statement issued at the end of their meeting subsequently observed: “Canada and India call for the voluntary, safe, and sustainable return of the people displaced, while stressing the importance of ensuring law and order and respect for human dignity in this process.” They also called for “restoration of humanitarian access for relevant UN and other international organizations to facilitate the entire process.”
The two leaders also discussed and subsequently made their observations about the evolving dynamics in the Maldives. The joint statement expressed “strong concern” over recent developments in the Maldives and their implications for a free society and called for early revocation of the state of emergency in that country to allow all democratic institutions to function independently.
Such an expression was interpreted by some analysts as an indirect hint from India to China not to transgress into India’s domain of influence.
One can only express satisfaction and happiness that despite several challenges, Trudeau’s India trip, mired in controversy, ended with a hug.
Muhammad Zamir, a former Ambassador, is an analyst specialized in foreign affairs, right to information, and good governance. He can be reached at [email protected]