AMRITSAR, India – Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says he made it “very, very clear” to the chief minister of Punjab that Canada supports a united India and condemns violent extremism, describing repeated allegations from the leader of the predominately Sikh region that Canadian ministers are separatists as misunderstandings and false.
Trudeau and his Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan met Amarinder Singh on Wednesday in part to try and mend fences with the state where a majority of Indian Canadians are from.
Trudeau’s position is that Canada supports a united India and absolutely condemns violence for any cause, but will not crack down on those advocating peacefully for an independent Sikh state because that is a freedom of speech issue.
“We will always stand against violent extremism, but we understand that diversity of views is one of the great strengths of Canada,” Trudeau said. “I was able to make that very clear to him.”
Tensions between Canada and India have risen in recent years over Indian concerns about a rise in Sikh extremism coming from some of Canada’s Sikh communities. Trudeau’s appearances at some Sikh events where extremist supporters also showed up caused unhappiness in India. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has raised the issue with Trudeau several times and it likely will come up again when the two leaders meet in Delhi on Friday.
Last April, Singh said he was not interested in meeting any Canadian cabinet ministers because he thought Canada’s approach was too soft regarding Sikh Canadians who favour an independent Sikh homeland called Khalistan. He snubbed Sajjan when the minister visited India in April, calling him and the other three Sikh ministers in Trudeau’s cabinet “Khalistani sympathizers.”
He repeated those allegations just two weeks before Trudeau left for India and Sajjan and Infrastructure Minister Amarjeet Sohi both vehemently denied any ties to separatist movements. Sajjan called the comments defamatory.
In a Facebook post made Wednesday after the meeting, Singh said he was “happy to receive categorical assurance” from Trudeau that Canada supports a united India.
“His words are a big relief to all of us here in India and we look forward to the government’s support in tackling fringe separatist elements,” Singh wrote.
In a conversation with reporters later Wednesday, Trudeau would not say whether he believes there is actually a fringe Sikh separatist problem in Canada. He said only Canada has been working with Indian authorities to keep people safe from violent extremism.
“We will continue to work on these issues wherever they arise,” said Trudeau.
Singh welcomed Trudeau warmly at a hotel in Amritsar and asked him about his trip so far. He was polite, but more guarded, in greeting Sajjan.
The meeting almost didn’t take place. Although Singh told Indian media he would meet Trudeau at the Golden Temple in Amritsar during the prime minister’s visit, Trudeau’s office said before leaving for India that wasn’t going to happen and no meeting was being arranged.
That changed Sunday when Sajjan himself asked for a meeting with himself, Trudeau and Singh.
Earlier in the day, Trudeau spent time at the Golden Temple, the holiest site in Sikhism, where thousands of worshippers lined the walkways and called out religious greetings as Trudeau passed.
The temple in some ways is directly tied to the tensions between India and Canada. In 1984, India’s army had a violent clash with Sikhs in the temple, an incident which the Ontario legislature recently voted to label a genocide. That event is believed to have been partly behind the bombing of an Air India flight from Canada in 1985 which killed 329 people.
Despite the tensions around the separatist issue, Trudeau’s welcome to Punjab was warm. Welcoming posters and banners bearing his picture lined the streets, much as they did in Ahmedabad earlier this week.
Both Singh and Trudeau seemed to indicate their meeting was a reset on the relationship that can now turn to fostering economic and cultural ties between Canada and Punjab.
— follow @mrabson on Twitter.