Otherwise, it seems improbable that Prime Minister Narendra Modi known for his penchant for photogenic tele-shoots with visiting foreign dignitaries should miss the opportunity offered by Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on a week-long visit to India from February 17 (2018). On his first visit to India, Mr Trudeau was received in the country by a junior agriculture minister. Later, Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath stayed away when Trudeau visited Taj Mahal in Agra in his state. And Mr Modi even did not accompany the Canadian PM when he visited Ahmedabad in former’s native state Gujarat.
Naturally, a section of Indian media was quick to compare this development with other past occasions when Mr Modi went out of the way to warmly receive visiting Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu, UAE Crown Prince and US president. And notwithstanding the official denials that ‘Indian PM need not accompany a visiting dignitary everywhere’, headlines were seen splashed in the print and electronic media that ‘Indian Prime Minister has virtually given a cold shoulder to his visiting counterpart’. Some headlines screamed that India ‘snubbed’ Trudeau to convey him that his government’s ‘mollycoddling radical Sikhs and Khalistani elements in Canada is not at all acceptable to India’. India’s High Commissioner to Canada Vishnu Prakash openly said the Sikh radicals’ activities in Canada was of a major concern to India. He pointed said that the Canadian government should not allow the vote-bank politics to embolden the radical Sikhs out to unleash ‘anti-India propaganda directed to undermine the unity and integrity of India……Canada’s land is being used by Khalistanis as a platform against India…..so on’.
Given the geopolitics of north America, one cannot expect India should give importance to Canada at par with Israel and USA, but Indian establishment clearly mounted a pressure on Mr Trudeau who had come to out with a clarification. At a function in Ahmedabad, he said “Part of Canada’s strength is that we recognise diversity, different views and opinions as an important success of Canada. We, of course, reject violence and hateful speech. I can reassure everyone that Canada supports one united India”.
In April last year, Punjab Chief Minister Capt Amrinder Singh also raked up issue of the Sikhs’ activities in Canada. He openly refused to meet Canadian Defence Minister Harjit Singh Sajjan who, on an official visit came to Punjab, his native state on the plea that the latter was sympathiser of ‘Sikh separatists’ seeking dismemberment of India. Capt Singh was reportedly aired his personal grudge against diaspora Sikh leaders who had snubbed him while he visited Canada as part his election campaign in the run up to the Punjab assembly polls in 2016. But his action was also interpreted as the one meant to appease New Delhi establishment. The Chief Minister, however, now rolled out ‘red-carpet’ welcome to Mr Trudeau after backchannel diplomacy succeeded in forcing Canadian Ministers- Mr Sajjan and Mr Amarjit Sohi to issue public statements that they had never been supporter of Khalistan.
The Sikhs have a long history of resentment against the Indian establishment which, in fact, has its origin in the Partition of Punjab in 1947. The Sikhs always felt that they have been denied political accommodation in Independent India.
Of late, India stepped up its campaign against the radical Sikhs abroad following the recent barring of Indian consulate officials from Gurudwaras which surfaced in a section of Indian media as ‘Sikhs terrorists operating from Canada’. A week before the visit of Canadian Prime Minister to India, the Indian magazine Outlook (February 12, 2018 issue) carried a picture of Mr Trudeau on the title showing him covering his head with a scarf to visit a Sikh shrine. The magazine also published an article named Khalistan-II which was interpreted as part of ‘pressure building tactics’ on the Canadian Prime Minister. The Canadian Defence Minister Harjit Singh Sajjan and Infrastructure Minister Amrjit Sohi were also targeted by Outlook as ‘Khalistani sympathisers’. The same article was republished by Indian Defence Research Wing (IDRW), a government funded organisation for military propaganda.
The palpable alienation of Sikhs from the Indian state began with the attack of Indian Army on the Golden Temple, Amritsar in June 1984, and then in November 84, the systematic killings of Sikhs in Delhi, Kanpur and other towns after the assassination of Indira Gandhi. Those violent incidents, no doubt, emboldened the Hindutva forces. To the chagrin of Indian minorities those happenings brought the strong feelings of majoritarianism to the fore. Then bashing of minorities entered the space of real politicking in India. The burning of churches, burning to death of Christian missionary Graham Staines and his kids, Muslims killings in Gujarat shadowed the Indian secular democracy.
With dwindling space for the Sikh dissent in India, the diaspora Sikhs, particularly in Canada with second largest population, more than half of 1.4 million Indians there, kept raising the voice against the “atrocities on Sikhs”. The diaspora Sikh leaders have been very vocal critic against the ‘police brutalities on Sikhs in Punjab’ and raised their concerns internationally. Even, the Sikh pogrom of November 1984 in Delhi and other Indian places was described as ‘genocide’ in the Ontario assembly.
All this have evoked a strong reaction from the Indian establishment which, too, activated its agencies for developing intelligence files of the Sikh campaigners and prepared a ‘blacklist’ of such people. The Investigative journalists Brian McAndrew and Zuhair Kashmiri described covert operations of Indian intelligence in their book “Soft Target” which was banned in India. Even the NDP leader Jagmeet Singh happens to be part of the blacklist who was denied visa to visit India. He even went public saying that Indian agencies tried to sabotage his campaign for party presidency.
Several Gurudwara Management Committees have jointly taken the decision to bar Indian officials from participating in functions in Sikh shrines but they have clarified “ Indian consulate officials are not barred from attending Gurudwaras on personal visits as a devotee”.
In fact, the battle lines drawn between the Indian authorities and the Sikh campaigners in Canada became sharper following the Sikh immigrant politicians securing an overwhelming share in Mr Trudeau’s Liberal government. The Sikh politicians there allege that Indian authorities ‘use the blacklists as a tactic to threaten peaceful activities of Sikh human rights groups. The Indian visa, used as a tool to bring Sikhs into Indian state lines.’ Most of NRI Sikhs have their relations back in their native state, Punjab. The Sikh leaders also allege that “The Sikhs are being restricted by several overt and covert ways by Indian authorities to raise concerns democratically for their family and friends back in India”.
Under an obvious influence of ultranationalists Indian establishment seems to have overstretched the Sikh issue which, as The Tribune underscored its editorial note, that India “lost an opportunity to gain from Canada’s rare combination of open borders and economic resurgence. Under the circumstances, the impetus required for the two countries to promote energy ties in shale gas and uranium may lose momentum.”
The editorial has rightly pointed out that “Trudeau cannot go the distance sought by the Indian side in putting down the (Sikh) separatists while South Block India is unlikely to soften its position, particularly after Trudeau interacted with civil society activists who complained of a diminishing space for dissent.”
Jaspal Singh Sidhu , an independent journalist writing on Punjab and other political affairs, can be reached at email: email@example.com