At one level, it is rude not to acknowledge the presence of an honoured guest amidst you with the customary welcome, And when the visitor happens to be a head of a government of an important foreign country, it is expected that the usual protocols of diplomacy would come into play. Oddly enough, India has given a stiff cold shoulder to the visiting Canadian prime minister.
The relatively young Justin Trudeau accompanied by his wife and children landed here at the weekend. Newspapers published the photographs of the handsome family prominently. But what was missing was the red carpet and the Indian dignitaries offering the customary welcome to the visiting head of government. A junior minister in the Modi Government did receive the visitors at the airport. Even the obligatory trip to the Taj Mahal was a family affair.
Predictably, sections of the media commented on how Modi himself had gone out of the way to greet the Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, according him a welcome far above the strict requirements of the protocol. What the critics fail to mention is that the Indian Government has a very good reason to register its displeasure with the visiting Canadian leader. It is because Trudeau’s Liberal Party has offered much room and leeway to the Sikh-Canadians who in the past have funded the separatist movement in the Punjab, but even now, when there is normalcy in the State, keep trying to incite trouble. Worse, Trudeau has given plum posts to these self-avowedly pro-Khalistani elements.
His party chief is a Sikh. There are three Sikhs in his government, including Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan, who has all along worn his separatist badge as a matter of honour. There are some half a million Sikhs in Canada among over 1.2 million Canadians of Indian origin, with a number of them periodically making pro-Khalistani noises. Sometime ago, they had blocked the visit of Captain Amarinder Singh to Canada, threatening violence should he land in the country. Indeed, it is a sign of freedom of expression, nay, liberalism gone amuck when a provincial Canadian legislature under pressure from the Sikh-Canadians passed a resolution, condemning the 1984 anti-Sikh riots as a ‘genocide’ and demanded international action against India.
Given this background, the low-key welcome to Trudeau, but strictly in keeping with the protocol, was correct and proper. Trudeau might plead that the exigencies of electoral politics oblige him to pander to the extremists openly rooting for Khalistan, but any other leader in his place would not have jeopardised Indo-Canadian relations for the sake of a few votes. The more he bends before the Khalistanis, the more liberties they take in challenging Canada’s ties with India. It seems some of these separatists are now planning to conduct a referendum on Khalistan in Canada. Trudeau should accord priority to engaging with India over his narrow-minded concern for the Sikh voters rooting for Khalistan.
Historically, the two countries have had warm relations, the only dips coming when India tested nuclear devices, first in 1974 and later in 1998. As a natural resource-rich country, there is tremendous potential for Canada and India to grow their relations. Supplies of uranium, shale gas and other raw materials are important for India while Canada remains keen to push farm exports to this country. But for the dissonance on the Khalistani extremists, India and Canada seem to be natural friends. However, not all may have been lost. Despite the snub from the authorities which could not insure his security, causing him to drop his visit to Canada, Punjab chief minister Amarinder Singh is scheduled to meet Trudeau when the latter visits Amritsar for the obligatory ‘darshan’ of the Harmandir Sahib on Wednesday. Even Prime Minister Modi will meet him at a reception in Delhi when the Trudeaus return to the national capital on their way back home. However, New Delhi will hope the low-key welcome by India succeeds in Trudeau moderating his enthusiasm for the separatists.