Sajjan asks Trudeau to meet Indian politician who accused Canada of Sikh separatist sympathies

The Canadian government is now seeking a meeting with the Indian politician who publicly accused members of Trudeau's cabinet of being connected to the Sikh separatist movement.

Harjit Sajjan snubbed by Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh when Sajjan visited India last April

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his family are silhouetted as they view the Taj Mahal, in Agra, India, Sunday, Feb. 18, 2018. Trudeau arrived in India on Saturday for a weeklong visit aimed at enhancing business ties between the two countries. Trudeau and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi are also expected to focus on areas including civil nuclear cooperation, space, defense, energy and education. (Manish Swarup/Associated Press)

The Canadian government is now seeking a meeting with the Indian politician who publicly accused members of Trudeau's cabinet of being connected to the Sikh separatist movement.

While Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his family spent much of their first full day in India touring the Taj Mahal and visiting an elephant rescue sanctuary, behind the scenes efforts were being made to extend an olive branch to Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh.

At the request of Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan — who was snubbed by Singh when Sajjan visited India last April — Canada's high commissioner was dispatched to set up a meeting with Singh, Trudeau and Sajjan later this week.

Trudeau is scheduled to be in Punjab Wednesday for a visit to the Golden Temple, the holiest site in Sikhism. Three days ago, Trudeau's officials denied Indian media reports that Singh — the head of that province's government — was to serve as Trudeau's tour guide at the temple, and said no meeting was planned.

On Sunday afternoon however, those same officials said a meeting is now being sought. Indian media are also reporting Singh has asked the Indian external affairs ministry to help him secure a meeting with Trudeau.

Singh has accused multiple Trudeau cabinet ministers of being Khalistani sympathizers and has been the most vocal with allegations that Canada's Sikh communities are a hotbed of Sikh separatists, giving oxygen to extremist elements of the cause.

Khalistan is the name of the independent Sikh state sought by some members of the Sikh community.

Ministers deny cause for concern

Trudeau's appearances at events where it was believed Sikh separatist leaders were also present ruffled feathers in Delhi over the last two years, and the issue has been raised in private conversations between Trudeau and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Trudeau is scheduled to meet with Modi in New Delhi on Friday.

A motion in the Ontario legislature last year to label anti-Sikh riots at the Golden Temple in 1984 as a genocide, and recent decisions by more than a dozen Canadian gurdwaras to ban entry to Indian diplomats in their official government capacity, have added fuel to India's concerns about a growing Khalistani effort coming out of Canada.

Trudeau and his cabinet ministers, including Sajjan, have loudly denied there is any reason for concern. On Feb. 7, Sajjan called Singh's accusations "offensive" and "ridiculous."

The Khalistan issue has threatened to cloud Trudeau's trip but Canadian officials in India tried to downplay it Sunday, saying the relationship couldn't be sidetracked by a single concern.

They pointed to the 30 per cent growth in trade between Canada and India over the last few years, as well as growth in the number of Canadian companies doing business there. The number of Indian students studying in Canada has also tripled in the last three years to 124,000 in 2017.

Trudeau is expected to make a statement during this trip reiterating Canada's policy in favour of a united India, but stressing Canada will not crack down on Sikhs in Canada expressing peacefully their desire for an independent state.

A difference of opinion on freedom of speech has been cited by some Indian policy experts as a reason for the dispute between Canada and India over the Khalistan movement, as Delhi would prefer Trudeau do more to quiet any calls among Indian Canadians.

The right to freedom of expression was one of many rights issues raised with Trudeau at a meeting with non-governmental organizations Sunday evening. Some were so afraid of reprisals for speaking with him the Canadian government cancelled a planned photo op and refused to release the names of the individuals or even their organizations.

Trip a form of 'work-life balance'

Earlier in the day Trudeau, his wife Sophie Grégoire Trudeau and their children, Xavier, Ella-Grace and Hadrien, flew to Agra to visit the Taj Mahal. Trudeau said he had first been there 35 years ago on a prime ministerial trip with his father, but Pierre Elliott Trudeau had to work and couldn't join him.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, with his sons Hadrien and Xavier, right, take a round of the Taj Mahal, in Agra, India, on Sunday. (Manish Swarup/Associated Press)

"For me to be able to be here on an official trip while bringing my kids with me to share this is really special," he said. "It sort of shows for me how work-life balance has evolved a bit."

Grégoire Trudeau laughed a little at the latter statement, saying "we're trying."

Later they drove north of Agra to the SOS Sanctuary and Elephant Conservation and Care Centre in Mathura, where they fed fruits and vegetables to a 23-year-old rescued elephant named Laxmi.