New Delhi: It was a meeting that almost didn’t happen—but a blunt diplomatic missive by the external affairs ministry got visiting Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau talking to Punjab chief minister Amarinder Singh.
The fact that the two were holding back wasn’t surprising —the Punjab chief minister, a veteran Congressman, has critical views on reported links between key members of Trudeau’s cabinet and Sikh separatist elements.
Singh had refused to meet Canada’s defence minister Harjit Singh Sajjan during his visit to India in April. He had reportedly cited Sajjan’s links with supporters of the Khalistan movement—an allegation Sajjan denies.
Given this acrimonious history, Trudeau didn’t include the Punjab chief minister in his schedule—Trudeau is due in Amritsar on Wednesday—two people familiar with the development said. The Canadian leader, mindful of the large Sikh immigrant population in his country, was conscious of the symbolism of a visit to the Golden Temple.
That’s when India’s foreign ministry stepped in, said the same two people cited above, requesting anonymity.
In unambiguous terms it told their Canadian counterparts that if Trudeau skipped the mandatory meeting with the CM, then India would withdraw permission for the PM to travel to Punjab.
“The visiting prime minister could choose to visit other states of India but not Punjab if he does not want to meet the chief minister, was the gist of what was conveyed," one of them said.
The first sign of a rethink in the Trudeau camp came when some Canadian news outlets reported that at Sajjan’s request Canada’s high commissioner to India Nadir Patel had been dispatched to set up a meeting between Singh and Trudeau. The rest is history.
On Monday, Singh confirmed officially as well as on social media that he would be meeting Trudeau.
“Look forward to meeting Canadian Prime Minister @JustinTrudeau in Amritsar on Wednesday. I’m hopeful that this meeting will help strengthen the close Indo-Canadian business ties as well as the deep-rooted people-to-people relations between our two countries," Singh tweeted.
The official statement added that Singh had told the state administration to “roll out the red carpet" for Trudeau.
“A visit to the Golden Temple is of great electoral significance for Trudeau," said Ajai Sahni, an expert who runs the South Asia Terrorism portal that tracks terrorist and militant groups operating in South Asia. “Trudeau cultivates the wider Sikh constituency in Canada but in particular the extremist Sikh constituency who control the gurudwaras in Canada."
“These extremist groups are very significant though they may be small in number," he added.
A little more than 1% of Canada’s 40 million people are of Indian origin and a large number of them trace their roots to Punjab. Many of them are traditional supporters of Trudeau’s Liberal Party.
A motion in the Ontario legislature last year to label anti-Sikh riots at the Golden Temple in 1984 as an act of genocide, and recent decisions by more than a dozen Canadian gurdwaras to ban entry to Indian diplomats in their official government capacity, have added to India’s concerns. The Indian government has not hesitated to convey these fears to their Canadian counterparts.
“But so far the Canadian prime minister hasn’t really done anything to assuage Indian concerns," Sahni said.