India shares a complicated relationship with Canada because of deep concerns over the patronage that the Khalistani elements enjoy on Canadian soil. There is a legitimate worry among Indian policy makers that the Canadian government has been turning a blind eye to the anti-India activities of the Sikh extremist groups operating from its country. No wonder then that the maiden visit of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to India was marked by frosty vibes amid media reports that he was cold shouldered by the Indian government. A fresh controversy has been added to an already fragile relationship burdened by the baggage of the past after a dinner invitation was extended to a convicted Khalistani terrorist Jaspal Atwal by the Canadian High Commissioner to India. This is a major goof up and totally unacceptable for any sovereign country. Given the serious diplomatic ramifications, Trudeau himself clarified that Atwal should never have been invited. Atwal’s dinner invitation was subsequently cancelled but the damage has already been done, leaving both the Canadian authorities and mandarins of India’s external affairs ministry red faced. It was quite gracious of Trudeau to state publicly that he would take action against the person responsible for issuing the invitation to Atwal. The Canadian parliamentarian Randeep Sarai has taken the blame and issued an apology. Atwal was convicted and sentenced to 20 years in jail for the attempted murder of Punjab minister Malkiat Singh Sidhu on Vancouver Island in 1986. At the time of the 1986 shooting, he was a Sikh separatist active in the pro-Khalistan International Sikh Youth Federation.
Even since the 46 year old premier landed in India, along with his family and a business delegation, for a week-long visit, the frosty bilateral equation has been the focus of the media. The absence of any welcome tweet from Prime Minister Narendra Modi was seen as a snub. Modi also chose not to accompany Trudeau during the visit to Gujarat, a courtesy that was earlier extended to Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Chinese President Xi Jinping. After much hesitation, Punjab Chief Minister Capt. Amarinder Singh finally met Trudeau in Amritsar and the Khalistan issue leaders. The Chief Minister gave him a list of nine Canada-based Khalistani operatives who are allegedly involved in promoting radicalism. Given the sensitivities involved in the issue, Trudeau was prompt in assuring Indians that he was for a strong and united India and that his government does not support any terrorist movement. This must come as a big relief for those who advocate a tough diplomatic approach towards Canada. There is a need to look beyond this irritant and focus on strengthening trading and cultural ties between the two countries.