Why Justin Trudeau Is Being Snubbed in India
The Canadian prime minister’s trip could nonetheless help him with a voting bloc he covets.
KRISHNADEV CALAMUR, The Atlantic, Feb 23, 2018
When Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, he of the perfect coiffure, high-voltage smile, and beautiful family arrived in New Delhi this week for a state visit, it should have been a perfect photo-op. Instead, neither Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi nor any of his senior ministers showed up to receive the Trudeaus.
In June 1985, an Air India flight from Toronto to Delhi blew up over the Atlantic, killing all 329 people on board. Investigators later found that the plot was hatched by Sikh militants in Canada as retaliation for the storming of the Golden Temple.
The Indian state ultimately crushed the Khalistan separatist movement—brutally. Those Sikhs who might have been sympathetic to the cause were integrated into the political mainstream. By the 2000s, the rebellion, Operation Blue Star, Gandhi’s assassination, and the bombing of the Air India plane were no longer as much of a driving force in Indian, or indeed Punjabi, politics. India even had a Sikh prime minister, Manmohan Singh, the respected economist, who was one of the architects of the country’s economic liberalization program. But if the Khalistan movement was no longer part of the political conversation in India, it remains a potent political issue in Canada.
The Sikh community is still relatively tiny—about 1.4 percent of Canada’s 36 million people—but Sikhs are a significant presence in British Columbia (about 5 percent of the population) as well as in Ontario and Alberta (about 1.5 percent of the population in each province.) Many Sikhs are influential in Canadian politics and public life, such as Defense Minister Harjit Singh Sajjan and Jagmeet Singh, the leader of the left-leaning New Democratic Party. Some, but by no means all, of these Sikhs still support an independent Khalistan. More importantly, they vote—and are a key voting bloc in the country’s elections; so much so that any serious Canadian politician who visits India goes to the Golden Temple and prays.
Trudeau’s Cabinet, as has been widely written about, reflects Canada’s diverse population. He has four ministers who are of Indian origin. All four are Sikh, including the defense minister. Trudeau has even boasted that he has more Sikh ministers than Modi. (He does.) But if Sikh officials in Punjab state are to be believed, all four Sikh-Canadian ministers are sympathetic to Sikh separatists. (All four are visiting India with Trudeau, who denies the allegation.) All this has not won Trudeau many political friends in India. But there was more to come Thursday. The public mood toward what should otherwise have been a mundane visit by a Canadian prime minister turned even more negative when it emerged that the Canadians had invited a Sikh separatist, now a Canadian citizen, convicted of the attempted murder of an Indian politician to a dinner with Trudeau at the Canadian High Commissioner’s residence in New Delhi. (It’s not clear how he obtained a visa to enter India.) The invitation was subsequently withdrawn.
As Shivam Vij wrote in the Washington Post, “for Trudeau, this trip is all about the Sikh vote in Canada.” The controversy over the trip helps the Canadian leader with a voting bloc that he covets. Without having done or said anything overtly—or even tacitly—supportive of the Khalistan movement, Trudeau will have shown Sikh Canadians that his primary loyalty is to Canada and Canadians—not to what the Indian government might want or think.