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India's highways minister Kamal Nath gestures during a press conference in New Delhi, India, 2008. Nath is in Canada speaking to potential investors. ((Manish Swarup/Associated Press))

Members of Canada's Sikh community staged a protest outside a downtown Toronto hotel Tuesday over the presence of an Indian cabinet minister they accuse of human rights abuses.

They also accused the Conservative government of hypocrisy for allowing Highways Minister Kamal Nath into Canada on a speaking tour.

Nath was at the scene of a bloody riot in New Delhi in 1984 in which two Sikhs — a father and son — burned to death, and a Sikh temple was set ablaze. He defended his presence, saying he was sent there to try to disperse the crowds.

Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, a lawyer and legal adviser to the group Sikhs for Justice, said Tuesday that Nath has violated human rights and "should be excluded" from Canada.

"It's simple. (The government) should apply the law," Pannun said.

"They are exactly following a double standard."

Findings by a commission of inquiry in India into Nath's role in the riot was inconclusive, but his critics point out the probe only began 16 years after the event.

They argue there was "overwhelming" evidence against him heard by the inquiry — including from witnesses — that leaves no doubt of his sinister role in the riot that occurred in the highly charged atmosphere following the assassination of Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.

"Should be excluded"

New Democrat Leader Jack Layton expressed concern that a "divisive and controversial" politician had been invited to Canada and urged caucus members to boycott Nath events.

"The voices of a great many Indo-Canadians from all across the country have been very clear," Layton said Tuesday.

"They are especially hurt by the presence in Canada of a man who allegedly organized anti-Sikh pogroms."

The Immigration Act allows the government to bar individuals who have been involved human-rights abuses, and it's this section the Sikhs say Ottawa should have applied to the Indian politician.

They note the Conservative government barred British MP George Galloway last year, and in 2008, the Eritrean foreign minister.

Liberal MP Andrew Kania, who represents Brampton West with its strong Sikh community, has written Immigration Minister Jason Kenney demanding an "immediate explanation" for allowing Nath in while scuttling a visit by Palestinian MP and peace activist Mustafa Barghouti and Galloway.

"Why the difference in treatment between the three foreign Members of Parliament," Kania said.

"Kamal Nath was the only one that the Conservative government decided to help."

Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty, who is due to meet Nath soon for the fifth time, said he believes in "constructive engagement," adding the federal government "welcomed" the MP.

Explanations demanded

"If there are issues of this kind, obviously we look to the federal government for guidance," McGuinty said.

Nath, along with senior Indian business leaders, has been in Canada since last week speaking to potential investors.

Tuesday evening's $200-a-plate talk was to the Canada-India Business Council.

Sikhs, mostly from Montreal, Toronto and Ottawa also planned a rally on Wednesday in Ottawa, where Nath was scheduled to address Canadian MPs.

Nath could not immediately be reached. Requests for comment from Kenney and the prime minister's office were met with no response.

India's acting high commissioner was not immediately available.