Trudeau Expresses 'Concern' Over India's Handling of Farmers' Protest; New Delhi Hits Back

A number of Canadian lawmakers, echoing the sentiments of the Punjabi diaspora, have urged the Indian government to uphold the right to peaceful protest.

New Delhi: Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Monday said that he was worried about the news coming from India on the farmers’ protest, and urged India to uphold the right to peaceful protests.

While he stated that Canada had already expressed its concern to India regarding the ongoing protests by farmers, India has accused Canada of “misrepresenting” diplomatic conversations for political purposes.

Trudeau aired his views on the farmers’ protest during a live Facebook interaction with Sikh leaders and members of his own cabinet on the occasion of the birth anniversary of Guru Nanak Dev on Monday.

He brought up the farmers’ protest against the Central farm laws at the start of the interaction.

“I would be remiss if I didn’t start by recognising the news coming out of India about the protests by farmers. The situation is concerning, and we are all very worried about family and friends. I know that’s the reality for many of you,” stated Trudeau.

He then added that Canada stood for peaceful protests and had conveyed to the Indian government the need for engaging in a dialogue. “Let me remind you that Canada will always be there to defend the right to peaceful protest. We believe in the importance of dialogue and that’s why we have reached out through multiple means directly to the Indian authorities to highlight our concerns,” he said.

He then went on to extol the teachings of Guru Nanak Devi as not only being at the “heart of Sikhism but of Canadian values as well”.

The Indian ministry of external affairs spokesperson Anurag Srivastava responded to Trudeau by referring to “some ill-informed comments by Canadian leaders relating to farmers in India”. “Such comments are unwarranted, especially when pertaining to the internal affairs of a democratic country,” he added.

In a possible reference to Trudeau saying that concerns were conveyed to the Indian government, Srivastava said, “It is also best that diplomatic conversations are not misrepresented for political purposes.”

India-Canada ties

While political relations between India and Canada have remained smooth, Trudeau’s efforts to develop a rapport with New Delhi has led to mixed results, with his 2018 eventful visit to India leading to criticism.

From the perspective of the Indian government, the large Sikh diaspora in Canada is seen as the main hub of the Khalistani separatist movement, which usually features in most of the diplomatic interactions.

In recent weeks, there has been a steady increase in the number of statements from the Indian diaspora in Canada, which were then amplified by their elected representatives.

The Indian Express had reported in September about cultural activities undertaken by progressive civil society groups in Canada’s Calgary to show support to the farmers’ agitation in Punjab. The report had noted that the organisers were largely members of Indian communities who had a strong connection to India.

Since then, the protests by farmers, largely led from Punjab, have gathered momentum and have now laid siege at the border of the Indian capital.

Farmers at the Punjab-Haryana Khanauri border. Photo: Special arrangement

In a report from the province of British Columbia, Canadian Broadcasting Corporate (CBC) observed on Monday that farmers with families in India’s Punjab and Haryana states are closely watching the protests.

As per the 2016 Census of Canada, people of south Asian origin account for 5.6% of the population. Out of them, 18% live in British Columbia, the third-largest among the ten provinces of Canada. Further, the census profile states that only 6% of the South Asian origin citizens identify themselves as Punjabi ethnic origin. However, over 38% of Canadian citizens with origin from Punjab live in British Columbia.

The CBC report quoted a vegetable and blueberries farmer from Surrey as stating that it was important to “support them from here”. “Farmers have general demands but the government of India, they don’t want to give them their own benefits,” said Parminder Wander, who has a family in Punjab and owns land in the Indian state.

With their constituents worried about the situation in India, Canadian lawmakers have become vocal. “Their ancestry is from that region. My ancestry is from that region… And most of my constituents, they belong to that sector, the agricultural sector. They come from rural India, rural Punjab and they have strong ties and strong emotions,” said Rachna Singh, a member of the provincial legislature for Surrey Green Timbers from the New Democratic Party (NDP).

The Liberal member of parliament from Surrey-Newton Sukh Dhaliwal had tweeted last week that police action against farmers during protests was “unacceptable”.

The leader of NDP, the fourth largest party in Canada’s House of Commons, Jagmeet Singh had also criticised the police action as “appalling” and called on the Indian government to engage in a peaceful dialogue.

He had repeated his support to the farmers’ protest in his tweet on Gurupurab, asserting that the demonstrations were in line with Guru Nanak’s teaching on social equality.

Ruling party politicians and members of the cabinet soon chipped in. Navdeep Bains, minister for innovation, science and technology, also noted that many of his constituents had expressed concern about the safety of their family and friends during the farmer protests.

His cabinet colleague Bardish Chagger, minister for diversity and inclusion and youth, stated that rights of farmers protesting peacefully in India must be respected.

Canadian defence minister Harjit Sajjan also noted that reports of peaceful protestors being “brutalised in India are very troubling”.  “Healthy democracies allow peaceful protest. I urge those involved to uphold this fundamental right,” he posted on his official Twitter account.