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Trudeau’s India trip makes Canadian media focus on Sikh separatism

Awareness about the Khalistani issue and that the separatists were being afforded a platform by Canadian politicians, was rather limited among the general public and Canadian media, as it barely touches their lives, a former Indian diplomat said.

india Updated: Feb 24, 2018 18:44 IST
Anirudh Bhattacharyya
Anirudh Bhattacharyya
Hindustan Times, New Delhi
Justin Trudeau,Trudeau in India,Narendra Modi
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (centre) poses for a picture with India's Women Ice Hockey Team players during an event in New Delhi on Saturday.(REUTERS)

As the eight-day visit by Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to India concluded on Saturday, it has attracted much criticism, some ridicule, adjectives like “disaster”, “joke”, “fiasco”, snarky memes and cartoons, in the mainstream Canadian media.

But observers believe that one positive by-product of the coverage was that the issue of Sikh separatism on Canadian soil may have permeated into mainstream Canadian consciousness.

Normally, Canadian media hardly pays any attention to resurgent Sikh separatism despite its violent history in that country. The majority has been oblivious of the Khalistan movement and the violence associated with it, but Trudeau’s India trip helped serve as a vehicle for informing them.

That message was driven home forcefully as the controversy over the dinner reception invitation at the Canadian High Commission in Delhi to a person once convicted for attempting to assassinate a Punjab minister in the 1980s.

The story was broken by Toronto Sun’s Candace Malcolm who started the frenzy with a tweet: “Here is the official invitation sent to Jaspal Atwal, inviting him to join Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in India. Trudeau is denying his sympathies for Sikh extremists, while also wining and dining them.”

Among the most articulate commentators to appear across Canadian networks, including CBC, the national broadcaster, was former British Columbia premier Ujjal Dosanjh, who himself survived a murderous assault allegedly carried out by Atwal in 1985.

Atwal was charged for that attack but never convicted. Dosanjh said, “I think it’s a good thing it’s coming out in the open. Previously, most Canadians didn’t think there was anything wrong, they didn’t know what was happening.” Now, he expects “Canadians will start asking questions.”

Vishnu Prakash, former Indian High Commissioner to Ottawa concurred: “Awareness about the Khalistani issue and that the separatists were being afforded a platform by Canadian politicians,was rather limited among the general public and Canadian media, as it barely touches their lives.

“Trudeau’s visit in general and the misguided invitation to Atwal in particular, finally brought the issue into public consciousness in Canada. This may lead to introspection and hopefully some course correction.”

The Canadian media could no longer pretend the Sikh separatist issue was being hyped by New Delhi.

The national daily, Globe and Mail noted “a good lesson may come of this at a domestic, cultural level. Mr Trudeau, as well as the NDP's Jagmeet Singh, may be looking to a sizable Sikh vote base to strengthen their electoral position – but that's doesn't mean they should fall back on free speech whenever they are questioned on the Khalistan issue, especially given Canada's own history with the Khalistan movement.”

Toronto Star stated in an editorial, “Last year in Toronto, for instance, the prime minister attended an event where separatist flags and portraits of an extremist Sikh leader were prominently displayed. Indian government officials have called on Ottawa to take a harder line on Sikh separatist elements at home, which they believe promote terrorism in India.” The reference was to the prime minister’s presence at a Khalsa Day nagar kirtan in Toronto, a story first broken by the Hindustan Times.

The lukewarm reception for Trudeau as he arrived in India and his meeting with Punjab Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh in Amritsar also highlighted the Khalistan issue across Canadian screens, newspapers and online outlets.

As Dosanjh said, “It’s always good to have the rot exposed to sunlight. Canadians are aware this nonsense has been going on, this duplicity by politicians has been going on.”

First Published: Feb 24, 2018 16:22 IST