Trudeau won't meet with Indian leader behind Sikh separatist controversy

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will not meet with the Indian politician who has publicly accused members of Trudeau's cabinet of being connected to the Sikh separatist movement.
Captain Amarinder Singh attends an election rally at in Chabal some 30 kilometres from Amritsar, India, Wednesday, Jan. 25, 2012. (Altaf Qadri/Associated Press)

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will not meet with the Indian politician who has publicly accused members of Trudeau's cabinet of being connected to the Sikh separatist movement.

Despite Indian media reports that Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh is to be Trudeau's tour guide at the Golden Temple in Amritsar during a state visit to India that begins Sunday, officials in the Prime Minister's Office say no meeting is planned.

"We have nothing planned with him at this time," said one Canadian official, speaking anonymously because they weren't authorized to discuss details of the trip publicly.

The Hindustan Times, the largest English daily newspaper in India, reported Singh was to accompany Trudeau to the temple and a nearby museum.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau greets members of the Indian community during the annual India day parade in Montreal, Sunday, August 20, 2017. (Graham Hughes/Canadian Press)

Last year, Singh refused to meet with Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan, accusing him of supporting the pro-Khalistani movement, which advocates for an independent Sikh state. Earlier this month, Singh told Outlook India magazine that "there seems to be evidence that there are Khalistani sympathizers in Trudeau's cabinet."

Sajjan and Infrastructure Minister Amarjeet Sohi, two of the four Sikh members of Trudeau's cabinet, pushed back hard against Singh's claim, denying that they were either part of the movement or that it was much of an issue at all in Canada's Indian communities.

Singh responded by saying he looked forward to having productive meetings with Trudeau on his trip. Canadian officials are giving no explanation for the decision not to meet him.

The issue is a cloud hanging over Trudeau's first state visit to India. While Indian government sources insist he will be received warmly, they also note the government has only set aside part of a single day for official bilateral meetings.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau introduces Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to his staff at a bilateral meeting during the 2016 Nuclear Security Summit in Washington, DC, April 1, 2016. (Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP/Getty Images)

Trudeau, who leaves Friday, is scheduled to meet Feb. 23 with President Ram Nath Kovind and Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the presidential palace in Delhi.

Modi has raised the issue with Trudeau when the two have met on the sidelines of various meetings, including just last month at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. That meeting came just weeks after several gurdwaras in Canada officially barred Indian officials from entering the premises.

That ban set off a chain reaction with gurdwaras in the U.S., the U.K. and Australia following suit, accusing the Indian government of interference.

Trudeau has to find a way to nip this all in the bud, said Shuvaloy Majumdar, a senior fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute for Public Policy and former policy adviser to ex-foreign affairs minister John Baird.

"It is absolutely essential the government of Canada repudiate terror in all its forms," Majumdar said.

The vast majority of Canadian Sikhs are not involved in or supportive of the Khalistan movement, particularly the extremist end of it, he added. But Trudeau's tendency to appear at events where Khalistani leaders are also featured, whether intentional or otherwise, has not gone unnoticed, he warned.

Canada's official line, which Trudeau will deliver if asked during the trip, is that it supports a unified India, will not support any forms of extremism but will also not override the freedom of Indian Canadians to speak out in favour of a separate Sikh state if they wish, said the Canadian official.

The government wants the trip to be about far more than the Sikh independence ties. With 1.3 million Indian Canadians, the community is fast growing and influential both politically and economically in Canada; a successful trip would help Trudeau both at home and abroad.

Trade between Canada and India has doubled in the last 10 years to about $8 billion in 2016. Preliminary free trade talks have been underway since 2010, but next week's visit is not expected to launch full scale negotiations, officials said this week.

Trudeau's trip is intended to focus on cultural and economic ties between the nations. He has meetings with a number of Indian CEOs and business leaders, as well as trips planned to some of India's biggest tourist sites including the famed Taj Mahal in Agra, Jama Mosque, and Sabarmati Ashram, one of the former homes of Mahatma Gandhi.

Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan speaks at the Canada 2020 conference in Ottawa, Friday June 16, 2017. (Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press)

Six cabinet ministers will be with him, including all four Indian Canadians in cabinet: Sajjan, Sohi, House Leader Bardish Chagger and Innovation Minister Navdeep Bains. Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland and Science Minister Kirsty Duncan will round out the sizable cabinet presence.

More than a dozen Indian Canadian MPs are expected to join Trudeau in India for some or all of the seven-day trip. Trudeau's wife, Sophie Gregoire Trudeau, and his children, Xavier, 10, Ella-Grace, 9, and Hadrien, 3, will also be on hand.

Nigel Selig, the chief representative in India for Export Development Canada, said from a trade perspective the political concerns are not a big deal. Selig said the issue has not come up in his work and he said his perspective is that the Canada brand in India is quite strong.

Both Selig and Majumdar said Modi has overseen some policy changes in India that are making it easier for Canadian companies to do business there. Canadian expertise in extractive resources, infrastructure, clean water and clean air technologies and renewable energy are in particularly high demand.

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