NEW DELHI: Things appear to be going from bad to worse for Justin Trudeau on his maiden trip to India as Canada’s Prime Minister.
He had barely dug himself out of a hole on the issue of supporting Khalistani separatists by proclaiming he was in favour of a united India, and by meeting with Punjab CM Amarinder Singh, when he landed in the midst of another controversy today over an invite to a convicted Khalistani terrorist for a dinner at the Canadian High Commissioner’s in Delhi.
The Canadian Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) quickly cancelled that invite to the terrorist Jaspal Atwal. But the damage had been done, because not only was there the issue of the invite, turns out Atwal had also been photographed with Trudeau’s wife Sophie at an event in Mumbai earlier this week.
Atwal, a member of the now-banned International Sikh Youth Federation, was sentenced to 20 years in prison for trying to kill the then Punjab cabinet minister Malkiat Singh Sidhu on Vancouver Island in 1986. Atwal later even confessed he was the shooter. (If he began his jail sentence in 1986, and if he served the full term, Atwal would have been released in 2006.)
“This person (Atwal) of course should not have been invited. The invitation has now been rescinded. We are looking into how it happened,” said Kirsty Duncan, Canadian Minister for Science & Sports, reported ANI.
The Canadian PMO was also at pains to clarify that Atwal wasn’t part of the official Canadian delegation and was in India in his private capacity.
“… it’s important to be clear that he is not part of official delegation to PM’s visit to India, nor was he invited by the Prime Minister’s Office. As is the case with international trips, individuals sometimes travel on their own to the location of the visit,” said the Canadian PMO.
Trudeau’s office didn’t comment on the curious coincidence of Atwal timing his private trip to India with that of the state visit by the Canadian Prime Minister.
On his part, an aggrieved sounding Atwal told a Canadian media outlet that he didn’t plan to attend the dinner in Delhi anyway as he was in Mumbai on business. He told Canadian news outlet Postmedia Network that he was in India for an online radio station based in Surrey in British Columbia and was not part of the official Canadian delegation.
Atwal further said it was “unfair” to raise his criminal conviction as the crime in question happened a long time ago. He also blamed unnamed “enemies” for circulating the photos Postmedia obtained of himself and Sophie Trudeau at the Mumbai event and stressed that he travelled to India on his own on February 11.
Sources late Wednesday Canada time – that is, early today in India – confirmed to the Vancouver Sun that Canadian Parliamentarian Randeep Sarai submitted Atwal’s name to the High Commission in Delhi for the dinner invitation.
A Canadian columnist Candice Malcome meanwhile posted photos on Twitter of Trudeau with Atwal.
“Trudeau is denying his sympathies for Sikh extremists, while also wining and dining them,” she said, posting the invite to Atwal for the Delhi dinner.
BJP MP Subramanian Swamy blamed India too for the apparent faux pas.
“It was foolish on our part that we didn’t do a thorough background check,” he told ANI.
“And the Canadians who say they don’t support Khalistanis how could they have allowed this,” asked Swamy.
India trip begins under a cloud
Since his India trip began on Saturday, Trudeau has been in the eye of a storm on the ‘Canadian support for Khalistan’ issue. He has four Sikhs in his cabinet, one of whom is Harjit Sajjan, a man Punjab CM Amarinder called a “Khalistani sympathiser” and refused to meet with last year.
Another cabinet minister, Amarjeeet Sohi said earlier this month that he’s neither sympathetic to nor against the Khalistan movement, a statement that didn’t sit well with India.
Many in Canada said India’s annoyance was obvious, given what they called the lukewarm response by New Delhi to Trudeau’s visit. They cited the fact that PM Narendra Modi didn’t received Trudeau at the airport or accompany him to Ahmedabad. They also cited the fact that Trudeau didn’t have Uttar Pradesh’s BJP CM Adityanath accompany him to the Taj Mahal.
India denied any purposeful snubbing. Official sources told TOI that Trudeau had been received by a Minister of State in keeping with protocol. They also said it was Canada that insisted that Trudeau’s official engagements in Delhi take place towards the end of his 7-day visit.
All along the Canadian PMO was mum. After three days of hectic speculation – ‘was it a snub or not?’ – Trudeau decided to say something in Mumbai.
Trudeau ‘supports united India’
His administration and Canada, Trudeau said, are committed to “one united India” and his government was serious about cracking down on extremism. When asked why he had not received a “warm” welcome in India, Trudeau said the relationship was not about just political ties and that he was looking forward to “sitting down” with PM Modi.
Then came news that Amarinder and Trudeau would indeed meet. Some reports said Trudeau didn’t want to meet Amarinder because the latter refused to meet Canadian defence minister Sajjan last year. Other reports speculated Amarinder didn’t want to meet Sajjan.
Eventually, the two met yesterday in Amritsar. In fact, Sajjan too was part of the Canadian delegation that met Punjab’s CM. Trudeau affirmed that his country does not support any separatist movement in India or elsewhere.
Apparently, Trudeau even cited the example of the separatist movement in the Quebec province of Canada and said that he had dealt with such threats all his life and was fully aware of the dangers of violence.
“They (Canada) will not allow anything which will come between us (India and Canada) to create these problems,” said Amarinder after the meeting.
As the Canadian PMO continued damage control throughout the day today, Trudeau kept a poker face – even smiled – as he visited the Jama Masjid in Delhi and later swung the willow a bit with cricket greats Kapil Dev and Mohammad Azharuddin.
He will be hoping the ‘sewa’ – ‘service’ – he performed at the Golden Temple in Amritsar yesterday will prevent any further hitches.