Trudeau talks 'united India' with outspoken foe of Sikh nationalists

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau met today with his most prominent critic in Indian politics — Amarinder Singh, chief minister of Punjab — and reported afterwards that he told the fierce opponent of Sikh separatists that while his government supports a united India, it's unwilling to muzzle non-violent Sikh nationalism at home.

Meeting was a fence-mending effort after Amarinder Singh accused PM of keeping separatists in cabinet

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan, left, meet with Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh in Amritsar, India, on Wednesday. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau met today with his most prominent critic in Indian politics — Amarinder Singh, chief minister of Punjab — and reported afterwards that he told the fierce opponent of Sikh separatists that while his government supports a united India, it's unwilling to muzzle non-violent Sikh nationalism at home.

Trudeau started the day with a tour of the Golden Temple in Amritsar, the holiest site in the Sikh faith, where he was received by enthusiastic crowds eager for a glimpse of the four Sikh members of his cabinet: Navdeep Bains, Bardish Chagger, Harjit Sajjan and Amarjeet Sohi.

Some Punjabis said the community sees Bains, Chagger, Sajjan and Sohi as evidence of the success of the Sikh diaspora in Canada and a source of pride. Two of the four, Sohi and Sajjan, were born not far from the Golden Temple, while Bains and Chagger were born to immigrant parents in Ontario.

That might explain why Singh — who has accused Trudeau of harbouring ministers sympathetic to the separatist cause in his cabinet  — appeared keen to mend fences today.

And while to all appearances his meeting with Trudeau today went well, accounts of what was discussed — and how deeply the participants went into the fraught topic of Sikh nationalism — differ widely.

Singh, a former captain in the Indian Army, has cultivated an image as a dogged opponent of the Sikh separatists who want to create a nation they call Khalistan. He publicly snubbed Sajjan when he visited Punjab last year, accusing the minister of sympathizing with the Khalistan movement.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau meets with Chief Minister of Punjab Amarinder Singh in Amritsar, India on Wednesday. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

On this visit, it was the Canadian delegation that seemed unwilling to meet, saying that no talks were expected with the chief minister even after Singh had told local media he was looking forward to meeting Trudeau.

Three days ago, Sajjan again reached out to the chief minister. Singh accepted the invitation but tweeted only that he was meeting Trudeau, without mentioning the defence minister.

It remained unclear as the delegation departed Mumbai for Amritsar this morning whether Sajjan would again be excluded.

But in the end, Singh met with both Trudeau and Sajjan after their visit to the Golden Temple. The meeting took place in a nearby hotel.

Indeed, from the moment the Canadians arrived in Amritsar, signs were evident that the chief minister wanted to reduce tensions. The Punjabi government had plastered Amritsar with large billboards bearing the slogan, "Welcome the Right Hon'ble Justin Trudeau," flanked by the faces of Trudeau and Singh.

Differing accounts

After the meeting, though, the two sides offered markedly different accounts of what was discussed.

The closest the Canadian side initially came to acknowledging that the issue of diaspora separatism had been discussed was a written statement that confirmed "the prime minister conveyed his support for a united India," adding that Trudeau also "discussed his views on freedom of expression and the importance of dialogue to establish common ground and understanding."

The term "freedom of expression" has been used by Canadian leaders in the past to resist Indian pressure to crack down on nonviolent Sikh separatists in Canada. In 2012, when pressed by India over similar issues, Prime Minister Stephen Harper responded: "We can't interfere with the right of political freedom of expression."

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau visits the Golden Temple in Amritsar, India. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

The Trudeau government's written account of the meeting, known as a readout, went on to mention familiar Trudeau themes such as the empowerment of women and girls.

But Singh himself gave a very different account to Indian media, saying that he had raised the issue of support for Khalistan in the Canadian Sikh diaspora and adding that Canada is one of the countries from which diaspora money flows to separatists in Punjab.

According to Singh's account, Trudeau responded by saying he "would look into the issue."

Singh made no mention of any other issue.

Sajjan gave few specifics about the meeting, but said he found common ground with Singh over their shared military service. He said he pointed out to the chief minister that the Canadian regiment in which he served, the Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry, had once fought alongside Singh's former Indian Army regiment on the First World War battlefield of Ypres.

Sajjan also stated again that he supports a united India.

'We will always stand against extremism'

A few hours later in New Delhi, Trudeau was pressed again on the issue and acknowledged that the topic had been discussed in the meeting "off the top."

"We recognize that there have been misunderstandings and strong words in the past, and I was pleased to be able to make very, very clear that Canada supports one united India and that we are unanimous as a government, as ministers on this issue," he said.

 "We look forward to continuing to work together — understanding, of course, that Canada values freedom of expression, defending human rights, and a broad range of perspectives.

"We will always stand against extremism, either at home or abroad, but we understand that diversity of views is one of the great strengths of Canada."

Trudeau also acknowledged that he told Singh that he would look into certain more detailed allegations, although neither man said what they were, or whom they concerned.

"We received information from him, as we receive from a broad number of sources and partners around the world on things they would like us to follow up on, and they will be followed up on," Trudeau said.

Whatever the two talked about, Singh did seem satisfied with what he heard.

After the meeting with Trudeau he posted on his Facebook page that he "was happy to receive categorical assurance from him that his country does not support any separatist movement. His words are a big relief to all of us here in India and we look forward to his government's support in tackling fringe separatist elements."

The meeting was the day's only real instance of political tension for Trudeau, who entered the Golden Shrine compound to cries of "Bolay So Nihaal, Sat Sri Akal" — a Sikh religious greeting that translates loosely as, "Whosoever speaks is enlightened, God is timeless."

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his family wife Sophie Gregoire Trudeau, and children, Xavier, 10, Ella-Grace, 9, help to make roti along with Liberal cabinet ministers as they visit the Golden Temple in Amritsar, India. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Within the compound, several thousand people ringed a vast pool of water surrounding the Golden Temple's inner sanctum, which is linked to the shore by a causeway.

The crowd appeared to police itself, with people in the front row joining hands to prevent pushing and shoving.

That kind of co-operation was on display throughout the temple compound. In the Langar, or communal kitchen, rows of men and women sat together on the floor while servers walked among them ladling soup into bowls. The temple often feeds more than 100,000 people a day.

In rooms behind the eating area, groups of women kneaded dough to prepare rotis — flatbread — which they passed on to men who cooked them on large flat-top stoves. Other men stirred enormous, bubbling iron cauldrons of lentil stew over gas burners.

Trudeau and wife Sophie sat down and prepared rotis alongside the women, before completing a circuit of the pool and crossing the causeway to the inner sanctum that contains the Guru Granth Sahib, the Sikh holy book completed more than 300 years ago by the 10th and last of the founding gurus of Sikhism, Gobind Singh.