When Canadian defence minister Harjit Singh Sajjan announced his first official trip to India two months ago, it reignited a sense of collective pride in Punjab with expectations of a warm welcome for the return of the native. For, Sajjan is the first Punjab-born Sikh to hold the top defence job in a foreign land, and epitomises yet another incredible success story of the Punjabi diaspora. But, Sajjan’s high-profile visit has been met with a cold reception from unexpected quarters — Punjab chief minister Captain Amarinder Singh.
The visit got embroiled in an unsavoury row even before Sajjan set foot on Indian soil on Monday.
The Captain started it all by dubbing Sajjan a “Khalistani sympathiser”, and refused to meet him during his visit to Punjab later this week. The chief minister’s outburst triggered a chain of reactions, reflecting a sharp divide in opinion on Sajjan’s credentials. While Congress MPs and MLAs were quick to come out in Amarinder’s support, his remarks have not gone down well with other political parties and the Sikh diaspora. Slamming Amarinder’s stand, the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC), the apex Sikh religious body, announced its plan to honour Sajjan when he pays obeisance at the Harmandar Sahib on April 20.
Sikh fundamentalist groups such as the Damdami Taksal and Dal Khalsa were quick to seize the opportunity, asking the SGPC for permission to honour the visiting dignitary. But, SGPC chief Kirpal Singh Badungar correctly grasped the sensitivity of the matter and rejected the radical fringe’s demand.
While the Canadian authorities called Amarinder’s allegations “incorrect and unfortunate”, Sajjan initially refused to join issue and stuck to the carefully-worded and diplomatically correct script. He chose his own timing and place to clear the air. “I don’t promote the break-up of any country. My job is to promote the bilateral relations,” he said, hours after his arrival in New Delhi.
That, however, is unlikely to mellow the Captain. He has stuck to his guns, citing as “evidence” the fact that Sajjan’s father has long been associated with the World Sikh Organisation (WSO), an overseas body that once espoused and funded the cause of a separate Sikh state.
It’s incredulous that as a seasoned politician as Amarinder, barely five weeks into power, has chosen to rake up the lost cause of Khalistan and used that as a ruse to distance himself from a Punjab-origin top ranking Canadian minister who ironically belongs to his own ilk. Lt Col Sajjan is a decorated war veteran of his adopted country.
In doing so, Amarinder has willy-nilly given publicity oxygen to the long-rejected Khalistani rump.
Personal pique, public posture
More than an ideological stand, the real reason for Amarinder’s snub for Sajjan seemingly stems from his personal pique. He has a bone to pick since last year when the Canadian authorities had put a spanner in his trip to the country before the Punjab assembly elections, on the grounds of legal bar on political canvassing by foreigners. In a sternly-worded letter to the Canadian prime minister, the Captain had blamed the pro-Khalistan lobby for playing spoilsport. Not surprisingly, his charge against the Canadian minister sounds like payback.
In public perception, Amarinder’s stance is not seen in good taste. From Punjab’s standpoint, he may have jettisoned any benefits accruing from the deepening bilateral ties between India and the Justin Trudeau government which has four Sikh ministers — more than the Narendra Modi cabinet. That itself is a significant marker of the sway of the half-a-million-strong Sikh diaspora in the maple country’s power politics.
It is true that the traumatic events of the 1980s continue to resonate among the Sikh diaspora and have come to be inextricably linked to domestic politics in Canada. That explains Ontario province’s extraordinary motion recently, calling the 1984 anti-Sikh violence ‘ genocide’ — a move that India has frowned upon. Yet, only a tiny section of the overseas Sikh constituency still fantasises about Khalistan. A silent majority has long moved away from the separatist mooring, as evident from the rising clout of moderates in the local gurdwara politics.
Ironically, the Captain, in 2005, was the first, and last, Punjab chief minister after Operation Bluestar to have ventured into Canada. Reaching out to the sullen Sikh community, he had audaciously addressed a gathering in a Toronto gurdwara, then in control of hot-headed Khalistanis. A controversy ensued, but he had justified his heart-warming gesture as a bid to win over the alienated Sikhs. In his second stint at the helm of Punjab, Amarinder may have lost an opportunity to reconnect with the NRIs and earn their goodwill.