On eve of Trudeau trip to India, Sajjan, Sohi dismiss claims of Sikh nationalism

Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan calls it "ridiculous" and "offensive" that a magazine in India is accusing Canada of being complicit in a rise in Sikh terrorism.

The magazine Outlook India is accusing Canada of being complicit in a rise in Sikh terrorism

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau greets members of the Indian community during the annual India day parade in Montreal, Sunday, August 20, 2017. An Indian news outlet is reporting that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will visit India in February, and may pay a visit to its Punjab region's famed Golden Temple. (Graham Hughes/Canadian Press)

Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan calls it "ridiculous" and "offensive" that a magazine in India is accusing Canada of being complicit in a rise in Sikh terrorism.

Sajjan and fellow Sikh minister Amarjit Sohi are making it clear they neither sympathize with nor espouse the Sikh nationalist movement, which is bent on creating a separate country called Khalistan within India's Punjab region.

The latest edition of Outlook India features a photo of Trudeau and a headline on the cover that reads, "Khalistan-II: Made in Canada."

Inside, a number of articles describe alleged connections between Canada and the movement, accuse Sikh Canadians of exploiting the country's political system and blame free speech for allowing fundamentalist language to flourish.

Sohi, who is infrastructure minister and represents an Edmonton riding, says he does not sympathize with the cause, nor does he hear much talk about it in the Sikh community.

Sajjan, meanwhile, says the accusation is "ridiculous" and says Canada is being "sucked into" internal Indian politics.

"I've been a police officer, I've served my country and any allegations like that is absolutely ridiculous and I find it extremely offensive as well," Sajjan said following a caucus meeting Wednesday.

Trade trip planned later this month

Some 16 MPs of Sikh origin were elected in 2015, says the magazine, which also blames Canada's allowance for free speech about human rights for giving "free reign" to more fundamentalist language that has led to the "radical capture of key gurdwaras."

The subhead on the cover reads: "Sikh religious successionism threatening the Indian Constitution assumes proportions of official policy status in Ottawa as Punjab Police books four Canadian residents for gun-running and terror-funding."

The issue comes just as India prepares to welcome Prime Minister Justin Trudeau for his first state visit later this month.

The goal of the trip is to focus on trade and cultural ties, but a successful visit would surely be a re-election boon for Trudeau, who already enjoys a high degree of popularity among Canada's 1.2 million Indo-Canadians.

Trudeau seems to have a friendly relationship with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi — the two have met on the sidelines of almost every international meeting they attended in the last two years, including just last month at the World Economic Forum in Switzerland.

But some political forces in India are less enthusiastic.

'Claims are very damaging and defamatory'

The articles accuse the Canadian government of allowing Sikh separatist movements to flourish and list four Canadians Indian authorities are said to want for allegedly supply weapons and funding terrorism in India.

The magazine also includes a Q and A segment with Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh, who says there appears to be "Khalistani sympathizers in Trudeau's cabinet." That allegation meant last April Singh refused to meet with Sajjan when Sajjan was in India.

There are four Sikhs in the federal cabinet, including Sajjan and Sohi.

"If there is a small segment of people in Canada who talk about separation, who talk about the creation of Khalistan, if they do that in a peaceful way that is their right to do so but this is not an issue that I hear in the community," Sohi said after Wednesday's meeting.

"From my point of view this is not an issue for the Canadian population, this is not an issue for the Indo-Canadian community within Canada, and I don't feel it necessary to be engaging in something that is completely irrelevant from a Canadian's point of view."

In the Outlook interview, Singh said he hadn't been contacted about a meeting, but that he would "be happy to meet Justin Trudeau or welcome him as per the protocol accorded to any state guest of his stature."

Trudeau's office won't say if a meeting with Singh is on the agenda.

Balpreet Singh Boparai, lawyer for the World Sikh Organization of Canada, called Singh's claims "ludicrous."

The latest edition of Outlook India features a photo of Trudeau and a headline on the cover that reads, "Khalistan-II: Made in Canada." (outlookindia.com)

"These claims are not borne out by any sort of facts," he said. "These claims are very damaging and defamatory."

Boparai said Indian media are always claiming outlandish things about Canada's Sikh community which are never proven to be true.

"Beyond political speech, there is nothing happening here."

The sentiment that Canada is sympathetic to the separatist movement is not new. However, some recent events have brought the allegations to the fore again, including an April 2017 motion in the Ontario legislature labelling as a genocide the 1984 anti-Sikh riots following the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.

An official in the Prime Minister's Office, speaking on condition of anonymity given the sensitivity of the matter, played down the impact the issue is going to have on Trudeau's trip, saying it will come up but will not be a focus.

If pressed, the official said, Trudeau — who leaves for India next week — will stand up for free speech and also reiterate Canada's policy in favour of a united India.


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