In the end, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau received the trademark Narendra Modi greeting—the bear-hug that has come to define the warmth that the Indian Prime Minister exudes when meeting foreign heads of state and government. But for the graciousness shown by the Indian Prime Minister, the Canadian PM’s long-drawn-out unofficially-official trip would have been written off as a disaster by the media and observers, and perhaps with good reason. Media and social media commentary through the week was about how Trudeau was being snubbed by India—which may or may not have been the case, and which was anyway denied by the Indians. But the reason behind the snub—if there was indeed a snub—was not far to search for. It was the present Canadian government’s overt links with Khalistani terrorists and separatists. Not only does Trudeau’s Cabinet consist of ministers who are supporters of a separate state of Khalistan, the Canadian PM himself has been seen attending events and rubbing shoulders with pro-Khalistan elements back home in Canada. In fact, even though a dinner invitation proffered to a convicted terrorist, Jaspal Atwal, was “rescinded” by the Canadian Prime Minister’s Office for fear of displeasing Trudeau’s Indian hosts, the fact is there are enough photographs on the internet showing the Khalistani in the company of a string of senior leaders belonging to Trudeau’s Liberal Party of Canada. Worse, there are photos of Trudeau rubbing shoulders with Atwal, apart from news reports about Atwal’s “deep ties” with the Canadian PM himself. So to try to pass off Atwal’s presence as an error, may not pass a simple fact check.
It is not every day that a visiting head of government has to assure the host that he/she does not want the break-up of the latter’s nation. But Trudeau had to do so to salvage a visit that looked like it was going south. The question is, if Trudeau meant what he said; or whether, or not, his domestic politics—or vote bank considerations as Indians will describe it—will again take precedence over India-Canada relations once he is home.
India-Canada relations are nowhere near reaching their potential. As this newspaper has already reported, in 2017, the volume of the merchandise trade between India and Canada was a “meagre” $8.3 billion. It is not just in India’s interest to have good relations with a country that is part of the economic pinnacle that the G7 countries represent, a country which is also an “energy powerhouse” and can meet India’s burgeoning energy needs. It is also in Canada’s interest to have friendly ties with the world’s largest democracy, which is also a rising economic and military powerhouse. Relations between the two countries cannot be allowed to be held hostage to Canada’s domestic politics—that too because the ruling party there sees political capital in pandering to the fringe.
What is the Canadian government doing about radical Sikh groups preventing the entry of Indian diplomats to gurudwaras, or the open endorsement of violence against the Indian state by radical extremists present on Canadian soil? These cannot be dismissed as instances of freedom of action and speech. In fact, the Canadian authorities playing footsie with extremists is not limited to Khalistanis. Many Canadians are concerned that their government’s soft policies are being misused by Islamists to make their country a safe haven for Islamic radicals. Just as London has come to be identified as Londonistan for providing refuge to hordes of extremists who preach hatred in broad daylight even as the authorities look the other way, Canada too is perceived to be following a similar path. The problem with such policies is that these always return to haunt their originators, apart from tearing up societies.
Here mention also must be made of India’s own laxity in giving visas to Khalistani radicals, who regularly visit Punjab and try to revive the embers of a near-dead movement in that state. For that matter, how did a convicted terrorist like Jaspal Atwal get a visa to come to India? It appears that in this case too, just as in Canada, domestic political considerations—particularly that of a party indigenous to Punjab—have been driving the Indian government’s soft treatment of Khalistani extremists. If India truly believes in what Prime Minister Narendra Modi said at the end of the meeting with Justin Trudeau, that “terrorism and extremism are a threat to countries like ours and to fight these elements it is important for us to come together,” then India too needs to do its bit by disallowing entry to known Khalistani elements into the country.