Politics·CBC in India

Trudeau government moves to mend fences with India over Sikh tensions

Sikhs make up less than two per cent of India's population, but among Indo-Canadians, have considerable political clout. Justin Trudeau's India trip, which includes a visit to the temple at the epicentre of Hindu-Sikh tensions, has presented a diplomatic challenge.

As Punjab temple visit approaches, Canada reaches out to a leader who's been a vocal critic

India has put up posters marking the visit of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at every stop, including this one in Agra, Uttar Pradesh State. (CBC)

The Trudeau government is reaching out to mend fences with an Indian politician who has accused it of including Sikh separatists in its cabinet.

Capt. Amarinder Singh is an Indian war hero and chief minister — or head of government — of the state of Punjab. Singh is a Sikh, and he runs India's only majority-Sikh state. But he's also an implacable enemy of the separatists who have tried to break away from India to form a Sikh nation they call Khalistan.

Last year, Capt. Singh refused to meet Canada's Punjabi-born defence minister, Harjit Sajjan, accusing him of holding Khalistani and "anti-India" sympathies.

A week before this trip to India began, Sajjan shot back.

"I find that absolutely ridiculous, and us being sucked into some internal politics," Sajjan said. "I've been a police officer. I've served my country. Any allegations like that are absolutely ridiculous, and I find it extremely offensive as well." 

Capt. Amarinder Singh is shown at an event in Amritsar, India on Jan. 25, 2012. Singh has accused Canada's defence minister of 'anti-India' sympathies, a claim that has been angrily rejected. (Altaf Qadri/Canadian Press/AP)

Although Capt. Singh appeared to relent, saying he was now willing to meet the Canadians, the Trudeau delegation appeared ready to return the snub of the previous year — announcing that the delegation would visit the Punjab, but not the man who runs it.

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But it soon became apparent that India's discomfort with Canada over Khalistan is still very much an issue. Indian media stories invariably raise the matter in reports on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's visit.

Sikh influence in Trudeau cabinet

A decision by Canada's gurdwaras, or Sikh temples, to bar Indian diplomats has spread to the Sikh diaspora in the United States, United Kingdom and other countries, alarming the Indian government and creating the impression that separatist sentiment in the Sikh diaspora is on the rise.

And so the Trudeau government has decided to mollify the irascible chief minister. Sources say Canada's high commissioner is reaching out to him to set up a meeting with Sajjan and Prime Minister Trudeau later this week.

"When I travel around the world, I meet with a broad range of leaders and elected officials. I will always engage with people to defend and stand up for Canada's interests and Canada's values," said Trudeau.

On Monday, Singh tweeted that he's meeting Trudeau on Wednesday in Amritsar.

"I'm hopeful that this meeting will help strengthen the close Indo-Canadian business ties as well as the deep-rooted people-to-people relations between our two countries," he said.

Infrastructure Minister Amarjeet Sohi said the Indian media have blown the Khalistan issue out of all proportion.

"I think this is a perceived issue within the Indian media. I was asked about this when I was in India on a business trip last year and I was very clear that this is not an issue for Canadian people. This is not an issue for the Indo-Canadian community in Canada at all."

Some of the tension between Canada and India is a matter of demographics. Sikhs make up less than two per cent of India's population. But among Indian-Canadians, they form the largest group and have the greatest political clout; all four of Trudeau's Indian-Canadian ministers are of Sikh origin.

In the background is the election of Hindu nationalist Narendra Modi as India's prime minister in 2014.

NDP leader Jagmeet Singh, right, who was denied a visa to India, is shown in a photo posted to the Free Jaggi Now Facebook page on Jan. 30 with Gurpreet Singh Johal, the brother of Jagtar Singh Johal, whose arrest in Punjab late last year has been condemned by many international activists. (Facebook)

Sikhism was born 500 years ago in opposition to both the religious intolerance of Islamic fundamentalists and the rigid caste system of Hindu fundamentalists. Sikhs were never going to get along with a government that sees India as a fundamentally Hindu country.

But two other events have inflamed tensions in the past year. The first is the banning of Indian diplomats from gurdwaras, a ban that began in Brampton, Ont., and spread around the world. Gurdwara officials said it was in response to Indian attempts to use access to visas and other pressure tactics to interfere in their operations.

The second issue was the arrest of Scottish Sikh Jagtar Singh Johal in Punjab last November. Indian police claim to be able to link Johal to killings of members of Hindu fundamentalist groups sympathetic to India's government. Johal's family and supporters have launched a #FreeJaggiNow campaign that has attracted strong support from the diaspora, including prominent Canadian Sikhs such as NDP leader Jagmeet Singh, who was denied a visa to India.

Dilemma for Trudeau

On a trip that undeniably was intended in part to score points with Indian-Canadian voters back home, Justin Trudeau now finds himself pulled in two directions.

He wants to build ties with Modi and show progress on trade, but that may hinge on stronger disavowals of Sikh separatists — which, in turn, might alienate Sikh-Canadian voters.

It's a dilemma faced by many Canadian politicians who have made the same trip in the past — ever since Preston Manning visited the Golden Temple in 1998.

Stephen Harper handled it when he came here by saying Khalistan "may be an issue that both the government of Canada and the government of India disagree with" but Canadian Sikhs are free to talk about it.

"We can't interfere with the right of political freedom of expression," he said.

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper is shown on Nov. 18, 2009 at the Sikh shrine the Golden Temple in Amritsar with officials from the central and Punjab governments. Harper said three years later he wasn't going to interfere with the freedom of expression of Sikhs regarding the Khalistan movement. (Narinder Nanu/AFP/Getty Images)

But what was good enough in 2012 may not be good enough in the India of Modi's Hindu nationalist followers.

Canada's national security advisor Daniel Jean was here last week for talks ahead of Trudeau's visit, and the Trudeau government has said Canada supports a strong and united India.

One prominent Canadian Sikh and Liberal said it's time for the government to go further.

"This is Canada's problem, it's no longer India's problem," said former B.C. premier Ujjal Dosanjh. "The Indian government is saying directly and indirectly, 'We're not putting up with it anymore.'"

Dosanjh said it's no excuse for Canadian politicians to plead ignorance when they appear at Sikh events that celebrate separatist martyrs.

"If they don't care about it, they shouldn't visit India," he said.

Golden Temple tensions

Jatinder Singh Grewal is a Canadian supporter of the Referendum 2020 movement that wants Punjabis to be able to vote on independence. He said it's Trudeau's job to stand up for Sikh-Canadians against Indian government pressure tactics.

"India uses fear against family members, people that are in Canada," he said. "They deny them visas, and family members in India are intimidated over their jobs, their personal safety, and various methods are used so people become silent in the diaspora.

"Members of my organization have been charged with trying to break apart India, and I do believe that one day I may be charged with some false accusation, although I'm a law-abiding citizen."

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, with his wife, Sophie Grégoire Trudeau, their sons Hadrien and Xavier, right, daughter Ella-Grace, centre, at the Sabarmati Ashram or Mahatma Gandhi Ashram in Ahmedabad, Gujarat, India, on Monday. The PM is trying to navigate a relationship with an ally without inflaming ethnic and religious sensitivities. (Ajit Solanski/Associated Press)

The Harmandir Sahib, or Golden Temple, is at the epicentre of all these tensions.

That is where pro-Khalistan militants made their last stand in a bloody battle with Indian troops in 1984 that killed many Sikh civilians. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated in revenge by her own Sikh bodyguards.

That in turn sparked massacres of innocent Sikhs on the streets of New Delhi that killed thousands. Sikh separatists in Canada retaliated by bombing an Air India flight, killing 329 people.

That bloody history casts a long shadow over Canada-India relations.

All eyes will be on the temple, and on Trudeau, when he visits it on Wednesday.