Trudeau's India Visit: Disaster or Political Masterstroke?
Sikh politics has always pivoted on identity issues, and political parties have worked on these issues in different ways, often with reasonable success. Khalistan, one of the biggest movement since the birth of the Khalsa, lost its call in average Sikh in Punjab due to the decade-long violent phase of terrorism which resulted in pain, loss and immense suffering.
This is in no way goes to say that the ideology has been vanquished in the minds of terrorists. Surprisingly remnants of the Khalsitani wave are very much alive in present-day Punjab, with youth still carrying stickers and showcasing their support but it receives little attention from the public whenever people attempt to exploit it politically.
The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), misguided by a clutch of closet hardliners and inexperienced managers parachuted from Delhi, with little understanding of the religio-political complexities of Punjab, faced the brunt last year with managing only a handful of seats in Punjab and ending 3rd in terms of vote share despite expectations of forming a government. Other parties like the INC which eventually won, and the avowedly Sikh party, the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) led by former chief minister Prakash Singh Badal, had a better sense of ground realities and used these allegations to further spoil the fortunes of AAP in the state.
The issue of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau allegedly not being given “due respect” on his recent visit to India last month seems have become the new symbol of the movement for Khalistan. Leader of Opposition and Aam Aadmi Party leader Sukhpal Khaira said it was “unfortunate” to see the lack of respect shown to PM Trudeau by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and opined that the Punjab Chief Minister Capt. Amarinder Singh should have himself received Mr. Trudeau at the airport.
Another major controversy that came up during the visit was the invitation of Jaspal Atwal, a Canadian Sikh convicted in India for trying to assassinate a Punjab minister in 1986. In a bizarre turn of events, not only did the Canadian High Commission send an invite to Mr. Atwal, the Indian Ministry of External Affairs cleared his visa application without raising a question. After the furore broke out in the media over the invitation and the grant of a visa, the Canadian High Commission rescinded the invite and PM Trudeau made a statement to the press.
But something about this visit was amiss from the start. Indo-Canadian relations had been on an upswing since the 2015 visit of PM Modi to Canada, while PM Trudeau’s predecessor Stephen Harper was in power. However, over the past few years, the relations took a turn for the worse. The visit of PM Trudeau and his family last month was also reflective, not just of poor optics, but also of a fundamental break in the ties. PM Modi did not roll out the red carpet for his Canadian counterpart, unlike the closely preceded visit of the Israeli Prime Minister- Benjamin Netanyahu, there was no meeting between any senior Union Minister and the Canadian Prime Minister for most of the time he was in India. Furthermore, the only PM level talks took place towards the end of the week-long visit with PM Trudeau spending his time meeting Bollywood celebrities, doing public events and the like. It looked more like a retired politician’s visit and less that of a sitting Head of Government. So what went wrong?
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in New Delhi, India.
A little more than 1% of Canada’s 40 million people are of Indian origin and a vast number of them trace their roots to Punjab. The five lakh or so Sikhs in Canada form 40% of the 1.2 million Canadian Indians there. Trudeau’s cabinet has four ministers of Punjabi origin, greater than what the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has in his cabinet.
When he unveiled his multi-cultural cabinet in 2015, the initial euphoria about the four Indian faces in the group soon gave way to the realisation that some had alleged ties to groups and agencies vocal for their support Khalistan. Many of these politicians count hardline Sikh Community Groups as their core voter bank. Soon after his win, Trudeau was seen attending a rally for Khalsa Day event in Vancouver where flags of Khalistan and the huge portraits of Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, the notorious leader of the Khalistan movement executed in the 1984 Operation Bluestar, were displayed openly.
When Trudeau arrived in Amritsar last month, the holiest city for Sikhs, he was received by Union minister of State for Housing and Urban Affairs Hardeep Singh Puri at the Guru Ram Daas Jee Airport. Trudeau drove down to the Golden Temple to offer prayers —a gesture laden with symbolism back home given the large Sikh immigrant population in Canada. He was given an enormous welcome with the SGPC President presenting him with a gold-plated picture of the shrine.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau with his family at the Golden Temple, Amritsar, India.
Interetsingly a strong Sikh leader Harnam Singh Dhumma who too has strong connect with the Badals was reportedly pushed off when he had wanted to honour the Prime Minster causing major embarrassment to the organisers. The presence of former Deputy Chief Minister of Punjab and President of Shiromani Akali Dal, Sukhbir Singh Badal, who made his presence felt by being the person overseeing the activities of the day at the golden temple raised many eyebrows.
On the contrary, Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh initially refused to meet PM Trudeau. In April last year, Singh had referred to the visiting Canadian Defence Minister Sajjan as a ‘Khalistani sympathiser’ and had expressed his disinclination towards Trudeau for his governments reported links with radical Sikh separatists. However, in a strange turn of events, a rather mellow Amarinder Singh not only met the Canadian PM but also described him as a “very wonderful person”.
There was some initial speculation about the fact the CM Singh was conspicuously wearing a tilak on his forehead during the meeting with the Prime Minister, something which the Sikhs are forbidden to do. The CM’s office later explained that the tilak was applied by the staff at the ‘Taj Hotel’, the venue of the meeting, as part of a welcome ceremony for their guests. Nevertheless, a large number of separatist groups picked up on the symbolism.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau with Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh.
PM Trudeau’s visit came after many incidents which furore internationally such as the denial of access to the Vancouver airport to a retired CRPF Inspector General, on the grounds that he served a government engaged in “terrorism, systematic or gross human rights violations, or genocide, a war crime or a crime against humanity.” Further, the ministers accompanying the Canadian PM such as his Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan, who, as pointed earlier, is accused of being a Khalistani sympathizer, and Amarjeet Sohi, who was arrested in the late 1980s under the TADA (Terrorists and Disruptive Activities) Act, also caused embarrassment.
The failure to anticipate such embarrassments cannot only be attributed to diplomatic mismanagement. A view can be expressed that the Canadian Prime Minister’s disaster trip was, perhaps by design. The Labour Party in Canada has a very strong vote bank in hardline Sikh population in their country. PM Trudeau’ appearance of having been snubbed by India could help galvanize strong support for him back home. This would allow him to portray a comparison with the same Sikhs who were forced to leave after the 1984 riots and operations.
Aside from the appearances, Trudeau’s decision to visit India, despite anticipation of a lukewarm welcome also shows his willingness to repair his ties with India and be proclaimed internationally for being the tolerant, liberal and the rational voice. This only enhances his stature among the Canadian population which are certain to view India as being intolerant and parochial to dissenting voices. In this respect perhaps, the visit was not an unmitigated disaster, but an engineered masterstroke.
About The Author
Abhay Singh Dhillon is one of the youngest politicians in India and the District General Secretary of the Youth Akali Dal. A highly decorated student of Welham’s School for Boys, Dehradun, Abhay is a multi faceted personality. He possesses extraordinary oratory capabilities and has also addressed a large number of rallies in Punjab. Abhay was recently recognised by the IAYP (International Award for Young People), a thriving youth program which discerns the various hurdles, snags faced by youngsters and professionals.