Justin Trudeau's India storm': It's time to heal bruises

Trudeau needs to seek a balance between the freedom of speech and religion and incitement of sedition in nations of origin.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his family left India on February 24 after a long seven-day safari through the country that gyrated between the sublime and the ridiculous. The Toronto Star editorially dubbed it a very bad trip that “may carry a steep cost”.

The ridiculous veered around the speculation that host Prime Minister Narendra Modi did not even tweet a welcome, by now standard Modi fare for arriving state guests. Furthermore, Mr Modi did not receive Mr Trudeau at the airport, again done selectively by the Prime Minister, or accompany him to Ahmedabad, Mr Modi’s hometown. All this was taken as a snub to Mr Trudeau due to his Liberal Party patronising pro-Khalistani elements in the Canadian Sikh diaspora. The explanation probably lay in bad programming as normally state visits begin in New Delhi, with trips across India undertaken thereafter. Its reversal and longish duration fed the negative stories. Even the well-meant attempt by the Trudeau family to go native sartorially was ridiculed by some in India and abroad. The Toronto Star, tongue in cheek, wrote that “Indians don’t actually dress like that, except may be on their wedding day”. But truthfully, Mr Trudeau’s bha-ngra moves at the Canadian high commissioner’s reception were vintage Punjabi.

The “Khalistan” issue emerged as Mr Trudeau’s visit to Amritsar approached. Punjab chief minister Capt. Amarinder Singh had last year used the pro-Khalistan argument against his then resurgent Aam Aadmi Party opponents, alleging they had links to Canada-based Khalistanis. The matter resurfaced when Capt. Singh later refused to meet Canadian defence minister Harjit Sajjan, on an official visit to India last year, on the same grounds, despite his distinguished military past. Now Capt. Singh proclaimed he would meet Mr Trudeau but not his Sikh ministers.

The subterranean tension erupted again when it was discovered that Jaspal Atwal, convicted for the attempted murder of a visiting Punjab politician in 1986, was an invitee to the Canadian high commissioner’s reception for Mr Trudeau. Although Mr Atwal was promptly disinvited, the issue’s wider implications lingered. For instance, how did he get a visa for India and furthermore get invited? The external affairs ministry promised an answer after an inquiry. But it put the Canadians on the backfoot over relations between the Liberal Party and the Sikh diaspora, which had been riling India as recently even gurdwaras in Canada had banned the entry of Indian diplomats. Strangely, a day later, a story appeared that in fact Mr Atwal was part of the outreach to recanting Khalistanis, whose names were removed from the blacklist to generate mutual goodwill. If that was indeed so, then why the fracas?

The Amritsar trip went smoothly with the Union government deploying recently-inducted Sikh minister and former distinguished diplomat Hardeep Singh Puri to receive and accompany Mr Trudeau during his Golden Temple sojourn. The Akalis, allies of the BJP, were left little space as the focus shifted from the beautiful pictures of the Trudeau family in and around the Golden Temple, to them actually making chapattis in the langar kitchen serving free food to devotees and even non-Sikhs, rich and poor. The meeting with Capt. Singh was short but meaningful, as he handed over a list of Sikh provocateurs in Canada attempting to fuel trouble in Punjab. No doubt the capture of Sikh gurdwaras by a vociferous minority of radicals must also have been discussed. Mr Trudeau needs to seek a balance between the freedom of speech and religion and incitement of sedition in nations of origin by Sikhs or Tamils, or any other ethnicity.

The two Prime Ministers eventually met on February 23 and issued a joint statement, which captures the above dilemma, noting at the start that while both nations value democracy, diversity, pluralism and the rule of law, cooperation rests on respect for sovereignty, unity and the territorial integrity of both. Both agreed to cooperate in fields like civil nuclear issues, education, audio-visual, intellectual property and sports. The need to expand bilateral economic and commercial relations, which hover around $8 billion annually, was also noted. Canada-US trade for instance is $2 billion daily. With US President Donald Trump seeking re-negotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (Nafta), a pact of the US, Canada and Mexico, and Canada joining the Trans Pacific Partnership minus the US, scope exists for diversification of trade and investment relations. A Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement is under negotiation.

Canada is a reliable source for high quality uranium and foodstuffs, including pulses. But this relationship needs to transcend producer-buyer relationship to full spectrum partnership in agriculture and horticulture. An energy dialogue is established as Canada leads in tar sand exploitation and is a net oil exporter. Canada overcame perceived betrayal at India using plutonium from a Canada-gifted nuclear research reactor Cirus in its 1974 nuclear test. After India got a waiver from the Nuclear Suppliers Group, Canada reopened uranium sales to India.

At the strategic level, there is shared concern over the observance of the United Nations Convention on the Laws of the Seas (UNCLOS) and freedom of navigation and overflights “throughout the Indo-Pacific”, a phrase re-echoing an Indo-US construct. Both called upon the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) to abide by UN Security Council resolutions and the Maldives to restore democracy and constitutionalism. While Canada’s desire to host more Indian students was noted, so was India’s desire to get Canada to liberalise immigration for skilled Indians. The last is important as the United States, under Mr Trump, despite whatever assurances India may extract, is moving relentlessly towards curtailing immigration.

All told, Mr Trudeau and his family captured the popular imagination by their costumes and family-on-vacation approach, besides courting the Sikh diaspora at home, numbering over 400,000 — almost one-third of the total and 1.4 per cent of Canada’s population. India, a bit clumsily, registered its concerns about the Khalistani fringe inordinately dominating the popular discourse. Hopefully, the bruises will soon heal, and a better relationship emerge.

The writer is a former secretary in the external affairs ministry. He tweets at @ambkcsingh

( Source : Columnist )
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