Trouble between the Canadian government, in particular some of its ministers of Sikh origin, and Punjab’s ruling establishment as well as the Central government over the growing activities of Sikh separatists was brewing ever since the Trudeau administration assumed office in 2015. As the charismatic Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau grapples with an unexpectedly lukewarm reception in Delhi, the Khalistan cloud has all but washed out his first official visit to India.
The government has officially refuted speculation that sending a junior minister to receive Trudeau at the Delhi airport was a “snub” of sorts, but the latter knows better. As an exasperated member of the official Canadian delegation told SouthWord., “Each time Modi or his senior diplomatic staff meet with our mainstream staff, this is the only issue on which they push hard.” The liberal stance of the Trudeau government towards the stepped-up activities of Sikh separatists has irked Indians like nothing else. And for good reason.
Punjab has just about put the traumatic, decade-long terrorism behind it and Sikh separatism is rarely spoken about in its now peaceful countryside. This, despite a clear effort by a new generation of educated, expatriate Khalistan sympathisers to revive the demand for a separate Sikh state. The most active of them are at present in Canada and the US.
So, when Trudeau attended a Khalsa Day parade in Toronto last year (April 30 2017), where Sikh militants like Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale and other killed in the 1984 Operation Bluestar were glorified, India red flagged it.
Just before that Harinder Kaur Malhi a legislator from Trudeau’s Liberal Party moved a resolution in the Ontario Assembly seeking to label the 1984 anti Sikh riots as ‘genocide’. It was passed. Pro Khalistani groups such as the US based Sikhs for Justice (SFJ) have been pressing for this for long and the ‘genocide’ resolution gave their efforts a boost. The Ontario Sikhs and Gurdwara Council, which organised the Khalsa parade attended by Trudeau, even felicitated Malhi for moving the resolution.
Soon after that Canadian Defence Minister Harjit Singh Sajjan with alleged links to Sikh separatists visited India. Amarinder Singh, Punjab’s chief minister, refused to meet him when the Minister went to the State during the same trip. Amarinder Singh even declared that he would not meet Trudeau when the latter came to the Golden Temple in Amritsar during his visit. However, hectic backroom work by Canadian Sikhs and a clarification by Sajjan as well as by Amarjeet Sohi (both Canadian Ministers with alleged links to separatists) that they do not sympathise with the cause of Khalistan has made the Punjab CM acquiesce.
Making things worse was the sudden announcement by over a dozen Canadian gurudwaras recently that they would not allow entry of Indian elected representatives and officials, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and Shiv Sena members. Some gurdwaras in the UK and the US also made similar announcements. The Trudeau administration has been silent on all of this. Its officials cite the nation’s liberal political culture and stress on freedom of expression to explain its inaction against the Khalistanis.
But a more likely explanation is pure ‘vote bank politics’ and Justin Trudeau’s dependence on the huge Sikh population in Canada, about 40% of the 1.2 million strong Indian diaspora, for his victory. The growing political influence of the Sikh community was reflected in the federal elections in 2015. Apart from the many MPs of Sikh and Punjabi origin who made it to the Canadian Parliament, four Sikhs became part of Trudeau’s cabinet. His visit to the Golden Temple in Amritsar on February 21, is described as part of his effort to keep the Sikh vote bank on his right side.
The SFJ which is spearheading a movement for ‘Referendum 2020’ to ask Sikhs across the world to decide on the demand for a separate Sikh state is very active in the US and in Canada. The Canadians have all along maintained that asking for a separate state is not illegitimate but it will draw the line only if its soil is used for violent activities. Indian intelligence agencies caution that hawala routes from Canada and elsewhere are being used to revive the movement in Punjab.
The odd spectacle of the Trudeaus visiting tourist spots across the country without celebratory bandobast makes it amply clear that India is not going to accept the growing proliferation of Khalistani separatists under Justin Trudeau’s watch in Canada and the use of Canadian gurudwaras to fuel demands to ‘liberate Punjab”. When Prime Minister Modi meets Trudeau on February 23, one can expect him to spell this out more plainly.