Trudeau in Trouble

Prime Minister’s visit to India sparks controversy around religious extremism

By Kaelen Pelaia, Staff Writer

Justin Trudeau returned from his visit to India two weeks ago, marking his first trip to the country during his tenure as Prime Minister. Trudeau was accompanied by five Cabinet members, with the mission of political, economic, and technological cooperation. However, many critics argued that the religiously-motivated agenda of the New Delhi government took priority over international politics.

The lukewarm reception of Prime Minister Trudeau lies in the divide between Sikhs and Hindus in India. Sikh religious separatism and terrorism is a tangible issue in the northwestern provinces of India, as radical Sikhs demand the secession of Punjab and the creation of a Sikh nation, Khalistan.

The Indian government’s struggle against the domestic terrorism of the Sikh separatists in the 1980s has caused their policy for dealing with this particular insurgency movement to become very cautious and strict. The Indian government has long urged Ottawa to ‘rein in’ the activities of radical Sikhs in Canada, and the icy reception of Trudeau in India may have been motivated by the Canadian government’s inaction on the subject.

PC: Adnan Abidi – Reuters

Upon arrival, the Prime Minister and his wife Sophie, along with their children, and the Cabinet members were not greeted by the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, but rather by a junior government official instead. According to several sources, this is a divergence from Modi’s approach to other foreign dignitaries, whom he greets personally and often accompanies them on their itineraries. However, Prime Minister Modi not only refrained from greeting the Canadian delegation, he also withheld the customary state banquet and reception for the Canadian entourage, usually held upon arrival. The banquet was instead held at the end of Trudeau’s seven-day visit.

However, once the diplomatic talks had begun, the result seemed beneficial for both nations. Trudeau and Modi held a wide range of bilateral talks, discussing business agreements, economic partnership, and the political atmosphere of Southeast Asia, including North Korea and the recently proposed U.S tariffs on steel and other industrial imports.

The main source of controversy from the visit, however, revolves around a Sikh extremist named Jaspal Atwal, who was convicted in Canada in 1986, and was sentenced to twenty years in prison for the attempted assassination of the Punjab minister Malkiat Singh Sidhu. He was allegedly provided with an invitation to a dinner party held by the Canadian High Commission in Punjab during the Prime Minister’s visit. He was also spotted taking a photograph with Sophie Gregoire Trudeau.

Ottawa has since admitted to making a mistake, and has condemned the actions of Sikh separatism and Atwal, who should have never received an invitation to the event in the first place. It is also unclear how Atwal entered India, as he was blacklisted from entering the country for criminal actions. Ottawa has also denied accusations that the several Sikh members of the Trudeau Cabinet are in any way connected with Sikh extremism in Canada. During his talks with Trudeau, Modi also presented him with a list of suspected Sikh extremists in Canada and insisted that Ottawa take action against these individuals.

The trip as a whole brought controversy on both sides, with many arguing that the Modi’s government purposefully snubbed the Canadian delegation as a diplomatic power move. Others say that the tensions and disagreement over the issue of Sikh extremism could have been avoided if the respective governments had communicated properly through the appropriate diplomatic channels.

Still, others note that the talks regarding business, economic, and political cooperation were ultimately successful and beneficial for both nations. Indeed, according to the Prime Minister’s official statement regarding the visit, their prospective business deal would supposedly create over “5800 good jobs for Canadians”. He also added that the Canadian government continues to support a ‘strong, united India’, and vehemently denies association with extreme Sikh separatism.

In any case, further cooperation between India and Canada is essential for the benefit of both countries, as these bilateral trade and business agreements also work to strengthen the cultural and economic partnership between the two nations. In light of divisive American foreign policy, and tensions concerning North Korean militancy and Chinese expansionism in the Western Pacific Ocean, Canada and India need to be strong allies with good relations, hopefully putting the tensions surrounding religious extremism to rest in favour of cooperation.