Sikh separatists in Canada drawing ire in Indian media before Trudeau visit
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks at a public town hall in Nanaimo, B.C., on February 2, 2018. A former top adviser to Barack Obama says he hopes Justin Trudeau makes the case for trade when he addresses a group of skeptical American students this week. The topic of free trade and the negotiations of a renewed North American free trade pact will be hard to avoid when the prime minister takes the stage tomorrow at the University of Chicago with David Axelrod, who served in Obama's administration. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Mia Rabson, The Canadian Press
Published Wednesday, February 7, 2018 5:17AM EST
OTTAWA -- Less than two weeks before Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is set to land in India, a popular Indian magazine has dedicated an issue to stories accusing Canada of being complicit in a rise in Sikh terrorism.
Trudeau is undertaking a week-long state visit to India later this month, his first trip to the country since becoming prime minister.
The goal is to focus on trade and cultural ties, but a successful trip would surely be a re-election boon for Trudeau, who already enjoys a high degree of popularity among Canada's 1.2 million Indo-Canadians.
Trudeau seems to have a friendly relationship with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi -- the two have met on the sidelines of almost every international meeting they attended in the last two years, including just last month at the World Economic Forum in Switzerland.
But some political forces in India are less enthusiastic.
The latest edition of Outlook India features a photo of Trudeau, which appears to be from the Vaisakhi Celebration on Parliament Hill in April 2016. The headline on the cover reads, "Khalistan-II: Made in Canada."
It continues: "Sikh religious successionism threatening the Indian Constitution assumes proportions of official policy status in Ottawa as Punjab Police books four Canadian residents for gun-running and terror-funding."
The magazine has at least three articles about Canada's alleged connections to the Sikh independence movement, including a Q and A segment with Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh, who last April refused to meet with federal Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan, calling him a "Khalistani sympathizer."
The Sikh nationalist movement seeks to create a separate country called Khalistan within India's Punjab region.
In the Outlook interview, Singh said he hadn't been contacted about a meeting, but that he would "be happy to meet Justin Trudeau or welcome him as per the protocol accorded to any state guest of his stature."
Trudeau's office won't say if a meeting with Singh is on the agenda.
The articles accuse Trudeau of having "Khalistani sympathizers" in his cabinet, and of allowing Sikh separatist movements to flourish. Singh claims that at least one case of Sikh extremism included an Uzi submachine gun bought with Canadian money; another article names four Sikh Canadians who are wanted by Indian authorities for allegedly supplying weapons and funding terrorism in India.
Balpreet Singh Boparai, lawyer for the World Sikh Organization of Canada, called Singh's claims "ludicrous."
"These claims are not borne out by any sort of facts," he said. "These claims are very damaging and defamatory."
Boparai said Indian media are always claiming outlandish things about Canada's Sikh community which are never proven to be true.
"Beyond political speech there is nothing happening here."
The sentiment that Canada is sympathetic to the separatist movement is not new. However, some recent events have brought the allegations to the fore again, including an April 2017 motion in the Ontario legislature labelling as a genocide the 1984 anti-Sikh riots following the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.
Although that provincial motion had nothing to do with Trudeau or the federal government, some Indian officials and a number of Indian media outlets hold him responsible because it was introduced by a Liberal legislator.
Indian authorities also told local papers last April they were not happy Trudeau continues to celebrate with the Sikh community, such as attending Khalsa Day parades in Toronto.
Boparai said the disagreement between Canada and India largely hinges on freedom of speech. Canada, he said, will not stop the free expression of people who want a separate Khalistan, but Indian authorities view such speech as extremism.
An official in the Prime Minister's Office, speaking on condition of anonymity given the sensitivity of the matter, played down the impact the issue is going to have on Trudeau's trip, saying it will come up but will not be a focus.
If pressed, the official said, Trudeau -- who leaves for India next week -- will stand up for free speech and also reiterate Canada's policy in favour of a united India.