Separatist Issue Hangs Over Canada-India Ties as Trudeau Arrives

Canada’s Justin Trudeau is about to walk into another Asian controversy.
Justin Trudeau, Canada’s prime minister, listens to a question from the media. (Photographer: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg)
Justin Trudeau, Canada’s prime minister, listens to a question from the media. (Photographer: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg)

(Bloomberg) -- Canada’s Justin Trudeau is about to walk into another Asian controversy.

The popular leader will arrive in India on Feb. 17 for a week-long trip that has stoked long-simmering allegations from Indian officials that Canada has been too comfortable with Sikh separatists who want an independent Punjab carved out of northwestern India. While it’s long been a matter of contention between the two countries, the fact Trudeau has a large contingent of Sikhs in his cabinet, all of whom are traveling with him, may be adding to the tension.

But the issue of the controversial -- and occasionally violent -- movement for a Sikh homeland is just part of a broader pattern of Canada’s frayed ties in Asia.

Trudeau, who has bragged his cabinet has more Sikhs than Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s, balked at a deal to save the Trans Pacific Partnership trade pact, holding out for concessions before a deal was eventually reached. His recent push to cement closer Canada-China trade ties also flopped

In each case, Trudeau was seeking “progressive” provisions, such as on gender and the environment, that are unlikely to sit well with Modi either, said Vivek Dehejia, an associate professor of economics at Ottawa’s Carleton University. “No Indian leader particularly wants to be lectured on these issues,” Dehejia said.

Trudeau’s government has signaled it would announce new private-sector investments between the countries in India, but isn’t expected to announce any breakthrough in free trade talks first launched in 2010. Trudeau spokeswoman Chantal Gagnon downplayed tensions over Sikh separatists. "Canada’s longstanding position on a united India has not changed."

Historic Issue

The historical issue of Sikh separatism has troubled Canada-India relations for years as Canadian politicians court votes in a Punjabi diaspora concentrated in vote-rich suburban districts around Toronto and Vancouver.

Indian diplomats say Canada’s politicians have appeared alongside people who pine for an independent Sikh state, or Khalistan. An Indian magazine recently featured Trudeau on its cover with the tagline: “Khalistan-II, Made in Canada.” 

"I don’t know of any bilateral engagement where this issue doesn’t come up," said Vishnu Prakash, a former Indian high commissioner to Canada, in an interview. "The removal of this issue would have a beneficial impact on the relationship." He said money has made its way from within Canada to radical elements in India, an issues that has been raised with the Canadian government before.

"It’s an important an issue," Prakash added. "It’s the unity and integrity of India."

‘Khalistani Sympathizer’

Punjab’s separatist insurgency reached its height in the 1980s, when Prime Minister Indira Gandhi ordered an attack on the Sikh’s revered Golden Temple complex -- which Trudeau will visit -- in order to flush out separatists. She was later assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards, prompting deadly anti-Sikh riots. 

Another incident was the 1985 bombing of Air India Flight 182, originating from Canada, that killed 329 people. Two Sikh men charged in the bombing were acquitted; another Sikh man was convicted, but was reportedly released last year.

Canadian Defense Minister Harjit Sajjan, who is Sikh, was asked repeatedly about the issue when he traveled to India last year. 

The chief minister of Punjab said at the time he would refuse to meet Sajjan because the minister was a "Khalistani sympathizer." Sajjan is one of six ministers who will join Trudeau. 

"Any allegations like that is absolutely ridiculous and I find it extremely offensive as well," Sajjan told reporters recently.

Free Speech

Still, the issue simmers. Some Sikh organizations, including in Canada, passed a motion to bar Indian officials from Sikh temples. And last year, Ontario’s provincial legislature recognized the 1984 riots as “genocide," a move that "sent an alarm through the Indian bureaucracy," said Stewart Beck, Canada’s former high commissioner to New Delhi.

"It usually boils down to symbolic and not so symbolic support in the form of banners and signs" at Sikh temples and in parades, he said. Indian diplomats have complained that some community events feature images and speeches that support a separate Sikh state.

With 1.4 million people in Canada of Indian descent, and India as Canada’s second-ranked source of immigrants, Ottawa is left orchestrating a balancing act.

"If some people believe in the support or the movement of Khalistan, they’re entitled to do so as long as they do that in a peaceful way," said Amarjeet Sohi, Canada’s infrastructure minister, who is also Sikh. He opposes the Khalistan movement and says it hardly comes up in Canada, but agrees people are upset about the “massacre of the Sikh community” in 1984.

To contact the reporters on this story: Iain Marlow in New Delhi at, Josh Wingrove in Ottawa at

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Ruth Pollard at, Atul Prakash

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