The visit of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to India has aroused keen public interest and not just because of his personal charisma. Son of his famous, though distant, predecessor Pierre Trudeau, he has established himself as a liberal, modern and youthful leader brimming with energy and initiative. He has weathered with deftness the threats emanating from US President Donald Trump about re-writing trade and investment relations with Canada by undoing the North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).
Indo-Canadian relations have been on an upswing since the two visits by Stephen Harper to India in 2009 and 2012. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was in Canada, mainly for the G20 meeting in 2010 and Prime Minister Narendra Modi travelled there in 2015. There used be two irritants in bilateral relations from the 1970s. One was sanctions on India’s nuclear programme after India’s “peaceful” nuclear test of 1974. The other has been the strident pro-Khalistan sentiments emanating from the gurudwaras of Canada.
The basis of the nuclear stand-off was Canada having set up India’s first experimental 40 megawatt nuclear reactor in 1954, christened Canadian Indian Reactor Uranium System (CIRUS). It was not under International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards, as those did not exist at that stage. However, a gentlemanly agreement existed that it would be used for peaceful purposes. Nuclear technology sharing then, in any case, was benefiting from the US’s Atoms for Peace approach. Canada took it quite amiss when it turned out that India had apparently used the plutonium stockpile created by CIRUS for the 1974 nuclear test.
The nuclear conundrum that kept Canada from selling India uranium for its burgeoning nuclear power programme was broken only after the India-US nuclear deal legitimised India’s civil nuclear programme. The CIRUS issue finally got closure when the two nations signed the Nuclear Cooperation Agreement in 2010. The first shipments of uranium from Canada began thereafter.
The Khalistan issue, if anything, has got a fresh lease of life after the advent of the Trudeau government, his liberal party benefiting from strong Sikh support. In a total population of about 1.2 million Indian diaspora, the Sikhs number about 470,000 i.e. nearly 40%. They are also concentrated in certain provinces giving them electoral power. Trudeau has included four Sikh ministers including Lt Col Harjit Sajjan as the defence minister. Last year, India was upset over the passage of a private member’s Bill in the Ontario provincial assembly labelling the 1984 massacre of Sikhs as “genocide”, though senior BJP leaders like Rajnath Singh and Sushma Swaraj, while in the opposition, had used the ‘G’ word. This was compounded when the mover of that Bill was honoured in the presence of Prime Minister Trudeau in a Toronto gurudwara.
There is also bad blood between Punjab’s Congress chief minister captain Amarinder Singh and vociferous pro-Khalistani elements in Canada. When he wished to visit Canada before the Punjab elections last year, he was denied a visa on the grounds that Canadian laws did not allow foreign politicians to make partisan appeals in Canada. This ignored what has been standard practice for Punjab politicians of all parties for decades. In any case, Singh thought this had been manoeuvred by Aam Aadmi Party supporters whom he considers as mainly Khalistanis. As a result, Singh refused to meet Canadian defence minister Sajjan when he visited Punjab, having come to India on an official visit.
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The Khalistan issue is really exaggerated by the Modi government’s security-dominated assessment of foreign challenges. It is easy to label all Khalistan supporters as agents of Pakistan’s ISI. Has the ministry of external affairs in the past two decades seriously tried to reach out to the Sikh diaspora? A Muslim ambassador is considered mandatory in Riyadh. Malayalis are avidly suggested to man Gulf missions as the diaspora is largely from Kerala. The last turban-wearing, Jat Sikh high commissioner to Canada was ex-speaker Gurdial Singh Dhillon in the early 1980s.
Trudeau’s visit provides a great opportunity to bury the last of these ghosts lingering since Blue Star. Let us hope New Delhi and Punjab realise this.
K.C. Singh is a retired Indian civil servant and was the Indian ambassador to Iran.