Spearhead Analysis – 12.03.2018
By Syed Murtaza Zaidi
Research Analyst, Spearhead Research
When Justin Trudeau was first elected Prime Minister in 2015, he was largely an unknown entity outside Canada. It was his charisma, liberal ideology, family name and focus on youth issues that made him a popular choice for the Canadian public, and it was these same qualities that later brought him admirers the world over. However, judging by certain recent events, it would seem that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is not one of them.
Trudeau’s highly anticipated, and recently concluded tour to India, was touted as an opportunity for the two countries to embark on a new era of cooperation and economic development. However, the trip was plagued with problems from the very beginning and made the news for all the wrong reasons.
A few days before Prime Minister Trudeau’s scheduled visit to India, posters starting going up around various cities and towns, welcoming the visiting head of state on his first official visit to the country. Later, when his plane finally touched down, a large crowd of well-wishers and government officials were there to greet him and his family on the tarmac. There was however, one very prominent figure, absent throughout all of this; Prime Minister Modi.
Since coming to power, Modi has become famous for his ‘bear hug’ diplomacy. Countless dignitaries and heads of state have now become accustomed to being pulled in for a hug by the unpredictable politician, who has usually made it a point to greet high profile visitors at the airport in person. Recently Donald Trump, Prime Minister of Israel Benjamin Netanyahu, and even Facebook creator, Mark Zuckerberg have all been treated to a Modi hug, which is why it was so surprising that Trudeau was not offered the same honor as well.
It becomes even more baffling considering the deep seated connection shared by both countries. Millions of Indians have emigrated to Canada over the years, and today they make up the second largest ethnic minority group in the country, after the Chinese. Yet, Trudeau was not afforded any of the formalities usually reserved for visiting heads of states and instead he had to make do with a junior State Minister leading his welcome entourage.
The situation was further exacerbated by a clear lack of proper planning by both the Canadian and Indian delegations. The trip itself was set to last for a whole week, however, Trudeau was only scheduled to take part in only half a day’s worth of official engagements. The rest of the time was filled by parading the Canadian premier’s family in unnecessarily extravagant traditional attire, as they made inconsequential trips to various tourist attractions around India, and interacted with local celebrities. If this wasn’t embarrassing enough for Prime Minister Trudeau, Modi also allegedly turned down his request to accompany him to his home state of Gujrat, an honor that the Indian Prime Minister has shared with many other world leaders in the past.
In most circumstances, any of these apparent slights would have been enough to cause a diplomatic fracas, and would have resulted in an international incident. However, they were all eventually eclipsed by the controversy surrounding the formation of Khalistan and Trudeau’s alleged support for this controversial movement.
The Khalistan Movement
Even though there is a sizable population of Indian emigrants living in Canada today, a majority of them identify as Sikh. They were amongst the first east Indians to travel to the country for better opportunities, and it is for this reason that they are an integral part of Canadian society and politics today.
Due to the relatively greater influence enjoyed by the Hindus and the Muslims in the Indian Subcontinent, the Sikh community has always felt ignored and usually found themselves on the fringes of any major decision making process related to the future of the region. After partition, they found themselves even more marginalized, as Punjab, the traditional Sikh stronghold, was divided amongst Pakistan and India. Since then, they have fought the Indian government for greater autonomy for the provinces, and to ultimately turn the Punjab, and some of its surrounding areas, into a new nation for the Sikhs, called Khalistan.
While the Indian government has largely been quite effective in clamping down dissent in the Sikh community and to silence the voices demanding a separate state, it hasn’t always been easy. The situation deteriorated at an alarming rate during the eighties, when the Sikh community’s frustrations with the central government led to the armament and fortification of the Harmandir Sahib or the Golden Temple. In retaliation, the government sent in various law enforcement agencies to neutralize the dissenters, in an operation since known as “Operation Blue Star”.
This incident would have a lasting impact on the Sikh community, as it led to communal violence and deaths on both sides, as well as lasting damage to the Temple itself. It resulted in a lot of bad blood between the Sikhs and the Indian government, and eventually led to the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1984, by two of her own Sikh bodyguards. This, in turn, led to anti-Sikh riots, that resulted in the mass killing of thousands of Sikhs across India, in an incident that would later be considered by some watchdogs as akin to genocide.
Trudeau and the Sikhs
Since that time, the relationship between the Sikh community and the Indian government has improved by quite a margin, yet calls for a separate nation still reverberate in their communities across the globe. The communal violence that gripped India during the eighties abated after a while, but many Sikhs took at as a sign to look for better opportunities elsewhere, and many of them chose Canada, due to its deep rooted Sikh communities, as well as their liberal attitude towards ethnic and religious minorities.
However, even after making a fresh start, a significant number of Sikhs were unable to forget the injustices suffered by their community and have since continued their fight for Khalistan from abroad. They use their influence in the international community to reiterate their desire for a new nation, and openly, as well as covertly, provide financial aid to various pro-Khalistan movements, like the Babbar Khalsa. Many in India, including members of Prime Minister Modi’s cabinet, believe that Justin Trudeau supports these movements as well, due to his presence at various pro-Khalistan rallies in Canada, in the past.
For his part, Trudeau has always maintained that his sole purpose for going to such events was to thank the Sikh community in Canada for their support. While it is true that some of these Sikh functions have had the presence of notable pro-Khalistan groups, Trudeau has also traditionally enjoyed a great following in the Sikh community and four of his cabinet ministers are also Sikh, including the Canadian Defense Minister Harjit Singh Sajjan.
It is widely accepted that the Indian government’s apparent displeasure with Trudeau is his pro-Sikh ideology and his unwillingness to publicly disparage the Khalistan movement. While they have raised these concerns with the Canadian high command in the past as well, the response has been wanting, to say the least. It did not help matters either, when recently the Ontario Parliament passed a motion to officially declare the 1984 anti-Sikh riots as a “genocide”, furthering alienating the Indians.
While Trudeau’s trip was aimed at improving the frayed relationship between the two countries, a diplomatic incident involving a controversial Canadian Sikh man threatened to derail the entire process. People were surprised when Jaspal Atwal, a convicted Sikh militant, blamed for the attempted killing of Minister of State of Punjab Malkiat Singh Sidhu in Vancouver in 1986, showed up at two government sanctioned social events. The Indian media soon found pictures of him posing with Trudeau’s wife, as well as other government worker at the events, and used them as proof of the Canadian Premier’s support for the Khalistan movement.
When confronted, members of Trudeau’s cabinet insisted that it must have been an attempt by somebody in the Indian government to embarrass the Canadian Prime Minister. These claims were rubbished by the Indians, with the Ministry of External Affairs releasing the following statement: “The Government of India, including the security agencies, had nothing to do with the presence of Jaspal Atwal at the event hosted by the Canadian High Commissioner in Mumbai or the invitation issued to him for the Canadian High Commissioner’s reception in New Delhi. Any suggestion to the contrary is baseless and unacceptable”. It soon emerged that liberal Member of Parliament Randeep Sarai was actually the person responsible for inviting Atwal to the events. Even though Sarai apologized publicly, the whole incident had been a cause for great embarrassment for the Trudeau government and he eventually handed in his resignation as the chair of the Liberal Party’s Pacific Caucus.
While Justin Trudeau did eventually get the famous Modi Hug on his last day in India, it did not have the impact that he was perhaps hoping for. The incredible series of events that dogged the entire trip seem to have overshadowed any of the progress made between the two countries and instead helped drive a wedge between them. The Canadian premier faced questions from the opposition as well as his supporters for this disastrous trip and the diplomatic gaffes that seem to follow them from one day to the next. Modi, on the other hand, fortified India’s reputation as a growing regional power, and his own reputation, as a shrewd and calculating politician.