As Canadian defence minister Harjit Sajjan wrapped up a week-long official trip to India, the visit that could have turned into a diplomatic disaster may have instead managed to circumvent the distractions of controversies.
As Sajjan arrived in Mumbai on Friday, he had a conference call with Canada-based media and described the visit as “extremely successful.” It may have drifted in another direction if the Indian government had stuck to its original position of downgrading it. The possibility of a meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi did not materialise, but New Delhi recalibrated its approach after the controversy created by Punjab Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh who accused Sajjan of having pro-Khalistan leanings and refused to meet him.
While a ceremonial guard of honour was, at one point, not on the agenda, it was reinstated. The reasoning was that hardline elements in Canada, already buoyed by a motion in the Ontario Assembly describing the 1984 anti-Sikh riots as “genocide” and the Punjab chief minister’s comments, would get more ballast if Sajjan was snubbed.
As it is, before the tri-services honoured the Canadian defence minister, Khalistanis were already fulminating: Shiromani Akali Dal (Amritsar) Canada’s president Sukhminder Singh Hansra said in a statement, “The Indian state insulted Canada’s defence minister Sardar Harjit Singh Sajjan and refused to give him a Guard of Honour, the traditional protocol for all visiting defence ministers.”
While the Indian Government made its point about disapproving of the Ontario Assembly motion, particularly during Sajjan’s meeting with his counterpart (and finance minister) Arun Jaitley, it did not allow that aspect of the dialogue to overshadow the bilateral process. Sajjan said they “spoke on many aspects of how we can move forward n our defence relationship and also our broader relationship as well.”
Meanwhile, Sajjan also met External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj as well as the chief ministers of Haryana and Maharashtra, both BJP-ruled states. He described those meetings as a “great opportunity.” If a divide persists following the visit, it will be between the Canadian government and its attitude towards the Punjab government, rather than the Centre, as Sajjan made it a point of repeatedly praising the Modi government’s actions.
As a coda to his remarks, Sajjan said, “I look forward to future visits and moving that cooperation further.” Both nations will hope that if and when such a visit occurs, it will prove far tamer than the one of April 2017.