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It’s 2018! So why are India and Canada stuck in the 1980s?

The principal problem is that of the festering Khalistan issue, the demand for a separate Sikh homeland carved out of Punjab. This is a movement steeped in violence. India looks askance at Canadian politicians pandering to these extremists based in Canada

columns Updated: Feb 17, 2018 23:32 IST
Canada,Justin Trudeau,Modi
Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Davos, Switzerland, January 23, 2018(AP)

As Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau arrives in India, more than two years after taking office, the delay in his long expected visit could well serve as a metaphor of sorts for the current stop-start state of ties between the two countries. No one ignores the potential of the relationship, but the reality is a downer. Bilateral trade is at $8 billion. Even that measly amount may take a further hit as India prunes its import of pulses from Canada following an ample domestic harvest. The likelihood of a pair of economic pacts being signed as Trudeau meets his Indian counterpart, Narendra Modi, is as slight as the trade figures.

The heft, meanwhile, is being offered elsewhere. Canadian companies are increasingly investing in India. Over 100,000 Indian students are now enrolled at Canadian universities. India remains among the top three source countries for immigrants settling in Canada. And Indian techies and startup entrepreneurs are increasingly eyeing Canada as the Silicon Valley magnet loses some of its drawing power given the uncertainties surrounding work visas and green cards in the United States.

These connections, and others, bring weight to bear upon an underperforming relationship at the government level; one that Ottawa and New Delhi haven’t quite managed to optimise.

The principal problem is that of the festering Khalistan issue, the demand for a separate Sikh homeland carved out of Punjab. This is a movement steeped in violence, including, of course, Canada’s worst incident of terrorism in the bombing of Air India’s Flight 182 in 1985, which claimed 329 lives with the majority of victims being Canadian citizens or permanent residents.

Meanwhile, India looks askance at Canadian politicians pandering to these extremists based there. India is concerned that these elements are becoming resurgent in Canada, often with the support of elected representatives, particularly those of Trudeau’s Liberal Party. This is an example of the Indian term, vote-bank politics, being transferred to Canada.

But as chatter about Khalistan grows louder in Canada, Ottawa’s intent is viewed with suspicion in New Delhi, as is its argument that such activism is covered by freedom of expression. Legislative motions accusing India of genocide, passed to pander to a vocal minority, and bans on Indian officials visiting some Canadian gurdwaras, are among the signs of extremists feeling empowered.

This bilateral divide relates, obviously, to events that occurred more than three decades earlier. But those resentments have maintained a long tail, and one that continues to sting. As two functioning democracies, Canada and India have to bring some maturity to bear upon this impasse so that the road ahead is cleared of the debris of the past. Only that can provide sustainable momentum to the engagement between Canada and India.

The time may have finally arrived for the two countries to move beyond the 1980s, and into the moment. To paraphrase Trudeau, he needs to voice his firm support for a united India, “Because it’s 2018!”

Anirudh Bhattacharyya is a Toronto-based commentator on American affairs

The views expressed are personal

First Published: Feb 17, 2018 15:14 IST