A lot has been thrown at the Canadian Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau on his India trip. But what is being forgotten is that India is a mosaic of eccentricities, cultures, beliefs, lifestyles etc. You name it and India has it. From naked sadhus, to dapper suited nononsense businessmen, serious politicians to MPs on criminals charges. The world and all its mistresses makes India. In that colourful parody of life, Trudeau’s visit was neither a failure nor a success on Indian soil. He took India as it is and added some spices for the media, the Indian authorities, the intelligence services and the Sikh community back home (in Canada). Everybody had a hey day including Bollywood.
Let’s take the poor chap, Jaspal Atwal. Every one who commits a crime and doesn’t want to make a lifelong career out of it, hopes that society will rehabilitate him/her after serving time. Atwal is probably no different. His crime was essentially politically motivated and India understands it. After the talks in London in 2015 when Indian PM Modi promised to bring down blacklists, Atwal also benefitted from that, particularly as he was no longer engaged in India bashing.
But it is not always like that in the west where the past sticks to one like a leech. Canadian press could not let him be, neither it seems can Canadian politicians drop the issue. The Indian media normally bellows out anything and everything that becomes a trend in the west, from ‘metoo to dumpbitcoin’ and of course Atwal. It is an echochamber. Fact is that no Indian official or minister expressed any concern and most importantly neither did PM Modi. Modi is probably used to the cacophony and shrill of Indian media.
Besides a number of Lok Sabha members are facing charges ranging from murder, rape to mega corruption. What if some of them had been at Trudeau’s events. Did the media pick that up?
Trudeau however was a little insensitive in taking an entourage largely consisting of Sikhs who had been seen as controversial by India. Again he came across as the white man who has just tripped into yoga and likes to show off. He wanted to show off his Sikhs. Perhaps Trudeau was not briefed about the undercurrents that inform relations between India- Canadian Sikh populations. India, rightly or wrongly, believes that Canadian Sikhs are leading the campaign for secession in India and creation of Khalistan.
Yet the divisions and fluid relations among Sikhs in Canada are no different than the diversity of opinions etc among Sikhs in Punjab. Simranjit Singh Mann, the Shiromani Akali Dal (Amritsar) president in Punjab, daily commits to Khalistan as does the Dal Khalsa. They are also seen as vote bank assets by Punjab’s leading politicians. The powerful Shiromani Akali Dal (Badal) sees Mann as a pawn against Punjab Congress to divide their votes. The Indian government does not think Mann will ever form a Government in Punjab and lets him be rather than detain him and suffer an international campaign for his release. Moreover the Courts have decreed that calling for Khalistan is not against the constitution. It is legit.
So why would India seek to muffle Khalistani voices in Canada? In Canada the only Sikhs who appear to hog the limelight are the Khalistanis, in the annual parades and sometimes by publicly displaying controversial banners etc. The Canadian press highlights them. The poor civil servant in India given the duty to monitor media and events in Canada probably concludes that all Sikhs in Canada are campaigning for Khalistan and the government is complicit by not stopping this. It is quite frankly a bit over the top analysis.
The Khalistanis in Canada are no more likely to win a seat into the Canadian Parliament than Mr Mann is about to form a government in Punjab. Just as Mann’s rallies in Punjab are jam packed, so are the Parades and Gurdwaras run by Khalistanis in Canada. Neither translate into votes. Both provide passions and rhetoric that people like. The Khalistani parades in Canada are a lot more exciting, full of passions and provocative pictures of ‘martyr’s for freedom’ etc than the parades organised by the non Khalistanis. So why wont the crowd go there? Passion and controversy attracts. To see them as more than a few days of excitable events is misunderstanding their role in the Sikh cultural life in Canada. Almost everyone who attends the parade, also goes to India and shows no further interest in forming Khalistan. It is the same in Punjab.
India going on and on about Khalistanis in Canada putting pictures of ‘martyrs’ or terrorists as India would like to call them, is a bit of a hangover from the days that any mention of Khalistan scared the hell out of Indian babbus. There are plenty of pictures of Baba Jarnail Singh Bhindrawallah hung on prominent public places in Punjab. Khalistan slogans also fly unhindered in Punjab.
Trudeau was right to dismiss these concerns and put them as freedom of expression. Why shouldn’t he go to a parade where they may be pictures of martyrs or slogans of Khalistan since neither of them have been declared as against Canadian and in fact even Indian law. He is a democratic politician who needs votes. He will as easily hop from a Khalistan dominated event to a Bharat Mata ki Jai (India is our Mother) event held by Hindus on the same day. I don’t think any of the Sikhs interpret this as Trudeau showing support for India against Khalistan.
India however is concerned that some Sikh groups in Canada may be funding assassinations of prominent Hindu leaders in Punjab. Indian agencies may have their sources and reasons to believe that this is happening. Canadian agencies have quite obviously not found that evidence to convict any of the individuals. After all it is against Canadian law to fund political assassinations or acts of terrorism in any part of the world.
It appears that Indian agencies are frustrated that Canadian agencies are not doing a proper job. That is a matter of judgement between the two and a third party can hardly comment. It is also possible that Indian approach to evidence gathering and Canadian approach may be different. Moreover what constitutes ‘evidence’ may also be different in the two countries. Some in Indian administration think that the Sikh cabinet ministers are stopping Canadian agencies from cooperating with India.
This is again a bit of a fanciful hypothesis. The current crop of Canadian Sikh ministers and the hardcore Canadian Khalistanis hate each other. If anything, these ministers would probably like to see a few of them behind bars if it didn’t dent their vote bank.
Moreover it seems that ironing out this issue was on the cards anyway and the National Security Advisors of both countries had already penned in meetings for this during this visit.
So where did the trip go wrong if it did at all. Possibly the Sikh ministers went a little overboard in overpopulating the Trudeau team with Sikhs, Sikhs and more Sikhs, families, children and friends. Indian paranoias only heightened at seeing an army of Sikhs descending with levers of power in their hands. In some pictures it seems that Canada is run by Sikhs with a white Canadian as mascot.That the Sikh ministers did not foresee pitfall this is not only naivety on their part, but perhaps a little mischievous. Trudeau must have depended on their advice and their advice was not sound. That is something he needs to look into. Heads might roll.
Secondly, the refusal of ETA clearance to myself as interlocuter between India and ‘Khalistanis’ has given the impression that Canada or some powerful politicians in Canada do not want this issue to go away. India, for all the mud thrown at it, is extending an olive branch to Sikhs to find solutions. The PM made this obvious in London in 2015. Why Canada refused me ETA clearance is a matter of speculation that does not help India-Canada relations.
But then Trudeau hasn’t quite conducted the India trip well posthumously. PM Modi showed great maturity and experience in disarming Trudeau’s apprehensions with the hug, making him and his family relax and not mention Atwal or the media reports once. Trudeau took his family as India is a family culture. It was a good move.
However it is after the trip that Trudeau seems to have got it all wrong. By saying in Parliament that he supports his NSA who made a farfetched statement better suited to 9/11 conspiracy mongers, has possibly irked the Indians more than all the other fiascos. By supporting the statement by Daniel Jean that Indian agencies were involved in getting Atwal into the parties in order to make Trudeau uncomfortable is both silly and ‘’Trumpish’. Either Indian agencies are so extraordinarily competent that they can engineer invitations from the Canadian High Commissioner in India, or Jean does not want to admit that he is running a scatty brain outfit.
This statement by Trudeau has probably confirmed assessments that the Indians were way above his league and Trudeau and his team were out of their depth in an extremely sophisticated country that has more clout in the UN than Russia or USA.
He could have dismissed media hounds by saying India is a country that has accommodated all sorts through history and he found his visits to iconic places evidence of that. After all India attracts because of these out of ordinary life experiences that tourists encounter. He could have publicly thanked the Indian government and consolidated the warmth Modi showed him (either as pity or as genuine). But he chose to think linearly like most of western media and took media criticism to heart seeking to blame Indians for the lapses of his security team. That is one thing India may not forget.
An eccentric somewhat insensitive itinerary, India could accommodate and laugh at. Indians are used to boisterous Sikhs too. But accusing India for his own team’s mistakes is another matter. He has done more damage to Canada-India relations when on Canadian soil than during his visit. For a time it seemd he understood India, But clearly not.