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Fresh setback to Justin Trudeau’s India visit as Khalistani terrorist invited to dinner reception

Jaspal Atwal was convicted of attempted murder for a 1986 attack on Akali Dal leader Malkiat Singh Sidhu in Canada.

world Updated: Feb 22, 2018 23:59 IST
Anirudh Bhattacharyya and Rezaul H Laskar
Anirudh Bhattacharyya and Rezaul H Laskar
Hindustan Times, New Delhi
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau,Khalistan,Canada
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau addresses the India Canada Business Session in New Delhi on February 22, 2018.(PTI)

A fresh controversy hit Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s visit to India on Thursday after it emerged that a convicted Khalistani terrorist had been invited to an official dinner reception, causing a setback to the Canadian leader’s efforts to reassure New Delhi that his government condemns violent extremism.

Already stung by a perceived snub to Trudeau because of his government’s soft stance on pro-Khalistan elements, Canadian authorities said the invitation extended to Indo-Canadian businessman Jaspal Atwal for the reception to be hosted by Canadian high commissioner Nadir Patel on Thursday night had been “rescinded”.

Atwal and three other men were convicted of attempted murder for the 1986 attack on Akali Dal leader Malkiat Singh Sidhu, who was visiting relatives on Vancouver Island at the time.

Sidhu, who was then a minister of state in the Punjab government, was injured in the attack and survived. He was later killed by Sikh militants in Punjab in 1991.

Trudeau told reporters: “Obviously we take this situation extremely seriously. The individual in question never should have received an invitation and, as soon as we found out, we rescinded the invitation immediately.

“The member of Parliament who included this individual has, and will, assume full responsibility for his actions.”

The Canadian Prime Minister’s Office said in a statement that it was “looking into how this occurred”. It added, “That said, it’s important to be clear that this individual (Atwal) is not part of the official delegation to the PM’s visit to India, nor was he invited by the Prime Minister’s Office.”

Canada’s public broadcaster CBC reported that the Liberal Party lawmaker Randeep Sarai, one of 14 MPs travelling with Trudeau, gave Atwal’s name to the high commissioner to be included in the guest list. Sarai later offered an apology, saying he should have “exercised better judgement” and taking full responsibility for his actions.

The external affairs ministry said it was ascertaining from its mission in Ottawa how Atwal got a visa. “Let us not presume things and decide how he managed to come. This is something which we are trying to find out,” ministry spokesperson Raveesh Kumar said.

Atwal is a former member of the International Sikh Youth Federation (ISYF), one of the key groups in the movement to establish Khalistan or an independent Sikh homeland, which was banned by Canada and designated a terror organisation in 2003.

Home ministry officials said Atwal was currently not on a “blacklist” of Khalistani activists and had not done anything illegal by entering the country.

Accused of another attack

Atwal was also accused of a murderous attack on Ujjal Dosanjh, an Indo-Canadian politician in British Columbia and a vocal critic of the Khalistan movement, in February 1985.

Dosanjh, who was brutally attacked in a parking lot, said he was “flabbergasted” to learn Atwal had been invited to an official dinner.

“I’m left speechless. This speaks volumes about the kind of inroads Khalistanis have made into the Liberal Party of Canada and the echelons of power,” he said.

Atwal was not convicted in the attack on Dosanjh because of a technicality related to his identification. The attack on the Punjab minister occurred almost a year later.

Dosanjh, who went on to become the premier (chief minister) of the province and a federal cabinet minister, said this pointed to a “colossal failure” on part of those conducting security checks for the Trudeau visit.

“This is what I have been saying. This is not about freedom of speech, it is about Canadian politicians openly hobnobbing, associating with unquestionable elements that are Khalistanis,” he said.

Photographed with Sophie Trudeau

The development raised questions about the visa issued by India to Atwal, and whether he had been removed from the reported “blacklist” of Khalistani leaders as part of the Narendra Modi government’s outreach to Sikh separatists.

The Toronto Sun reported it was shown photos of Atwal with the prime minister’s wife, Sophie Trudeau. Atwal was also photographed with Canada’s infrastructure minister Amarjeet Sohi and Brampton South Liberal MP Sonia Sidhu at an event in Mumbai.

The Sun was also shown a copy of the official invitation to Atwal. “His Excellency Nadir Patel, High Commissioner for Canada to India, is pleased to invite Jaspal Atwal to a dinner reception celebrating Canada-India ties on the occasion of the visit of The Right Honourable Justin Trudeau, Prime Minister of Canada,” the invitation read.

Atwal told the National Post he was in Mumbai on business and that he had travelled to India on his own on February 11.

1986 attack on Akali leader

Akali Dal leader Sidhu was attending his nephew’s wedding and driving on a rural road in Gold River, British Columbia, when his car was ambushed by Sikh militants in May 1986. The car windows were smashed and he was shot five times but survived.

Atwal and three other men were subsequently arrested and sentenced to 20 years in prison. The men did not serve jail time because the Canadian intelligence was found to have gathered evidence against them through an improperly obtained warrant.

Car fraud case

In 2011, Atwal lost a $28,000 decision against the Insurance Corporation of British Columbia in relation to a car fraud ring that included dozens of people. He previously held a leadership position in Surrey with Trudeau’s Liberal Party of Canada.

The National Post reported that nobody from the Canadian government “responded to requests for information (on) Wednesday about how someone with Atwal’s criminal and Sikh separatist history could be cleared to attend official events in India”.

Commentators have linked the snub to Trudeau’s failure to clearly speak out against Sikh extremists and Khalistani terrorists in Canada. Trudeau is also facing criticism for other aspects of his visit, including a number of events that have been described as photo opportunities with no substantive outcomes. Only half a day of the eight-day trip has been set aside for official engagements such as talks with Modi.

First Published: Feb 22, 2018 19:53 IST