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Canadian PM Trudeau’s presence at event with Khalistani flags upsets India

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s presence at a nagar kirtan in Toronto that featured Khalistani flags and posters of extremist leader Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale has upset the Indian government.

world Updated: May 04, 2017 23:36 IST
Anirudh Bhattacharyya
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s presence at a ‘nagar kirtan’ in Toronto that featured Khalistani flags and posters of Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale has upset the Indian government.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s presence at a ‘nagar kirtan’ in Toronto that featured Khalistani flags and posters of Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale has upset the Indian government. (Courtesy Canadian PMO)

While vitriolic attacks on Punjab chief minister Captain Amarinder Singh at the annual nagar kirtan in Vancouver riled the Indian government, there is consternation over Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s presence at a Toronto event that featured Khalistani flags and posters of Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale.

The Toronto nagar kirtan on Sunday also celebrated the carrying of a motion in the Ontario assembly last month that described the 1984 anti-Sikh riots as “genocide”.

A senior Indian official described Trudeau’s presence at the Khalsa Day event as “surely a matter of concern”. 

Trudeau was the first Canadian prime minister to attend the event since Paul Martin in 2005. Trudeau’s predecessor Stephen Harper had stayed away in previous years.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at the nagar kirtan in Toronto. (Courtesy: Canadian PMO)

Bhindranwale, an extremist leader who was at the forefront of the Khalistan movement in the 1980s, was killed when the Indian Army carried out Operation Blue Star in June 1984 to remove extremists who were holed up in the Golden Temple in Amritsar.

Though defence minister Arun Jaitley had expressed India’s concerns about the Ontario assembly motion to his Canadian counterpart Harjit Sajjan last month, the organisers of the nagar kirtan in Toronto honoured Harinder Malhi, Liberal member of the provincial parliament or MPP (equivalent to an MLA), who moved the motion, during the event.

The organisers, Ontario Sikhs and Gurdwara Council, also felicitated New Democratic Party MPP Jagmeet Singh, who had moved a similar motion in 2016 that was defeated.

A display featuring Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale at the nagar kirtan in Toronto. (HT Photo)

These developments have boosted the morale of pro-Khalistan groups in Canada.

For instance, Sukhminder Singh Hansra, president of the Shiromani Akali Dal (A) Canada, said in response to an emailed query: “I am glad that the organisers who represent a larger segment of the Sikh community have reminded the world of the peaceful struggle for Khalistan.”

Hansra further said: “In Toronto, all floats are prepared by the organisers, at least two floats were dedicated to the events of 1984, including flags and banners of Khalistan. I along with many others walked with these floats with Khalistani flags.”

He described the honouring of the two lawmakers as “the highlight of the nagar kirtan” in Toronto. 

A float featuring Khalistan flags at the nagar kirtan in Toronto. (HT Photo)

The Toronto celebration came in the wake of the event in Vancouver on April 22 where the Amarinder Singh was attacked in a speech.

While the Indian government has notified Ottawa of its concern, Canada has consistently maintained that such a protest, as long as it remains peaceful, is part of freedom of expression.

Khalistani activist Sukhminder Singh Hansra with opposition Conservative Party of Ontario leader Patrick Brown, who has, in the past, described Prime Minister Narendra Modi as a “friend”. (Courtesy: Sukhminder Singh Hansra)

The Vancouver event too was welcomed by rejuvenated pro-Khalistan groups. Sikhs for Justice, a hardline activist group, described India’s complaint as “a nefarious attempt to curb the freedom of expression of Sikh separatists living in Canada”.

Its legal advisor, Gurpatwant Pannun, said: “Canadian Sikhs have a constitutionally protected right to express any political opinion no matter how discomforting it may be for Indian government, including propagating for Sikh homeland Khalistan and campaign for Referendum 2020 to liberate Indian occupied Punjab.”

Taken together, this flurry of incidents has upset New Delhi and furthered the impression that Canada does not take India’s worries seriously, and that attitude may extend all the way to the top of the government.