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Did Canada’s obstruction of meet between radical Sikh groups and Ram Madhav in 2016 sour ties with India?

Failed November 2016 talks between radical Sikh groups and BJP leader Ram Madhav may not have been the only trigger. But it was among several incidents, key interlocutors involved in negotiations said, which contributed to the trust deficit between India and Canada.

india Updated: Feb 22, 2018 12:43 IST
Rezaul H Laskar and Prashant Jha
Rezaul H Laskar and Prashant Jha
Hindustan Times, New Delhi
Justin Trudeau,Canada,Canadian PM
Canada Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his wife Sophie Gregoire and son Xavier visit the Golden Temple in Amritsar.(AFP Photo)

Did the obstruction by Canadian authorities of a crucial meeting between radical Sikh groups and an interlocutor and senior BJP leader Ram Madhav in 2016 contribute to the frosty reception accorded to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau during his visit to India?

People familiar with the matter believe it may have been one event, and a very significant one, in a long list of incidents that have affected relations between the two countries.

In November 2016, Madhav travelled to Canada for a meeting with Sikh groups that had been arranged by UK-based Jasdev Singh Rai of the Sikh Human Rights Group. The plan was for Rai to travel from the UK to join Madhav in Toronto as the Sikh representatives were unwilling to hold talks in Rai’s absence.

Rai, a British citizen who had travelled to Canada at least 25 times and had kept the Canadian Security Intelligence Service in the loop about his contacts with the Sikh groups, put in a request for an Electronic Travel Authorisation (ETA) to Canada on November 17, 2016, thinking it would be a mere formality.

However, the ETA clearance – usually done within 24 hours – never came and Rai was unable to join Madhav in Canada, two people familiar with the developments said.

Madhav, who had earlier participated in similar talks with UK-based Sikh groups (also organised by Rai) and had plans to discuss the terms of a dialogue with Canada-based Sikh groups, was angered after he was left cooling his heels in Toronto, one of the two added on condition of anonymity.

In Rai’s absence, the key Sikh groups refused to join the talks and Madhav could only meet two representatives, Ranjit Singh and Parminder Singh, before he left Canada for the US after about 24 hours, this person added.

The second person familiar with the matter, who asked not to be identified, confirmed this turn of events.

Rai, currently in Geneva for meetings at the UN, on Wednesday accused the Canadian government of “sabotaging” the Indian government’s efforts to engage Sikh separatists in a dialogue. He said Canadian authorities had formally told him about his ETA being denied on “security grounds” only on January 27, 2017 – more than two months after he had applied for it.

“Trudeau should stop pretending that he is defending freedom of expression of Khalistanis and come clean that his government has obstructed the peace dialogue process between the Modi Government and Sikh separatists,” Rai said.

The second person familiar with the matter said Indian authorities had learnt that Rai had been denied a visa after pro-Khalistan groups lobbied Canada’s defence minister Harjit Sajjan, a key member of Trudeau’s cabinet. Sajjan is understood to have played a part in blocking the visa, and India was not happy.

Both people maintained that Trudeau may not have been aware of all the details of the matter as he had been “misled” on the activities of the Sikh radical groups by Indian-origin members of his cabinet, particularly Sajjan and innovation, science and economic development minister Navdeep Bains, both Sikhs.

The Canadian prime minister’s office didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

“Keeping the Khalistan issue alive in Canada helps some Indian-origin ministers get votes and this is crucial because Canada is set to go to the polls in 2019. Also, keeping this issue alive makes it appear to the constituents that these politicians are doing something on the matter,” said the first person.

Besides the scuppering of the planned talks with the Sikh groups, the case of Jagtar Singh alias Jaggi Johal has created tensions between Indian and Canadian security agencies. Johal, a British national who was arrested in Jalandhar in Punjab on November 4, has been linked to the targeted killing of eight people, including Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and Shiv Sena members, over the past two years.

Indian security agencies believe radical Sikh groups in Vancouver and Toronto were among the main financiers of Johal. However, other people familiar with the matter said Indian security agencies had received virtually no cooperation from their Canadian counterparts in investigating the sources of funding.

India raised the issue of stopping the funding from the Sikh groups during several recent meetings with Canada’s top security officials and agencies but is yet to see any action being taken on the ground, a third person said.

India’s efforts to reach out to Sikh separatists began before Prime Minister Modi’s visit to the UK in 2015, when the political dispensation in New Delhi decided it was important to “neutralise Khalistani propaganda”.

One way to do this was to reach out to UK-based Sikh groups directly and the BJP’s influential general secretary Madhav went to meet community leaders.

Given his role in organising community events during Modi’s visits to foreign capitals and his close interest in foreign policy and security affairs, Madhav was seen as a natural pick. Rai played a key role in facilitating the meetings in the UK. The effort paid dividends; some 30 Sikh representatives briefly met Modi and others later held talks with home minister Rajnath Singh. New Delhi also removed many leaders from a “blacklist” that prevented several overseas Sikhs, once active in the International Sikh Youth Federation (ISYF) and the Khalistan movement, from visiting the country.

Following this success, it was decided that a similar effort should be made to reach out to Sikh groups in Canada. Rai went to Canada in March-April 2016 and managed to persuade leaders of the main Khalistani groups of the benefit of a dialogue, the first and the second person said.

The outreach happened with the knowledge and sanction of the Indian government but the denial of a visa to Rai stalled the process, they added.

The failed November 2016 talks may not have been the only trigger. But it was among several incidents, key interlocutors involved in negotiations said, which contributed to the trust deficit between the two governments.

Much has already been made of the cold welcome accorded to Trudeau when he arrived in India on February 17 for an eight day visit, only half-a-day of which has been set aside for official engagements, including a meeting with Modi.

Commentators in India and Canada have noted that Modi did not personally receive Trudeau at the airport, an honour he reserves for leaders of such statute, or posted a welcome tweet. Other aspects of Trudeau’s visit so far too have been very low key.

First Published: Feb 22, 2018 07:26 IST