THE ONGOING VISIT of Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to India seems to have gone horribly wrong. Within hours of his arrival, there were loud whispers that he was being snubbed. When he landed on February 17th, he was received by a junior minister, Gajendra Shekhawat, and not by a member of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Cabinet. There was no customary welcoming tweet from the Prime Minister either. The Canadian leader’s eight-day visit was noticeable for another reason: the scant number of official engagements.
All this would be no more than reading tea leaves— there were no departures from protocol—but for the political baggage that accompanies Trudeau. Much of this has to do with the uncomfortably close relations between Trudeau and a very vocal section of the Sikh diaspora that continues to harbour separatist dreams for Punjab. Last year, when the state’s Chief Minister Amarinder Singh visited Canada, he was told that he could not address Sikhs there; this was under the influence of Khalistani elements. When Canada’s Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan came to India, Singh refused to meet him. Sajjan’s political sympathies for the separatists are well-known. The Trudeau administration did nothing to arrest this decline or do anything to address this highly sensitive issue.
That is what has marred Trudeau’s visit to India. If this were not enough, a Sikh separatist, Jaspal Atwal, was invited to a reception by the Canadian High Commissioner. Atwal was convicted of the attempted murder in 1986 of a minister from Punjab, Malkiat Singh Sidhu. The invitation to Atwal was rescinded after a controversy erupted in India. One commentator went as far as to suggest that Trudeau’s Indian visit was a ‘slow motion train wreck’.
All this has cooled down any enthusiasm for Trudeau, if there was any to begin with. The Khalistani machine in Canada is active and has an unusual degree of influence in the chambers of power there. To an extent, this is due to Trudeau’s electoral traction with Canadian Sikhs. Hobnobbing with such elements may serve him politically, but the cost will be high: ties between India and Canada will suffer if this trend is not reversed. Punjab experienced secessionism for a decade and peace in the province was purchased at a very high price. No Indian leader would risk turbulence in this state again.