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Behind the local controversy hanging over Harjit Sajjan’s India trip

Controversy has erupted in India over comments by a Punjabi politician attacking Canada’s minister of defence who is on a visit to the country


 
Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan answers a question during Question Period in the House of Commons in Ottawa on Thursday, June 9, 2016. (Adrian Wyld/CP)

Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan answers a question during Question Period in the House of Commons in Ottawa on Thursday, June 9, 2016. (Adrian Wyld/CP)

Minister of National Defence Harjit Sajjan is in India this week for meetings with his counterpart and other Indian cabinet members. But the visit may be overshadowed in his destination country by a controversy emanating from Punjab, the state where Sajjan was born before moving to Canada in 1976 at the age of five.

Sajjan is the last of the four members of the Liberal cabinet with Indian heritage to visit the country in recent months. He’s there to discuss cooperation in areas like defence, security, trade and innovation. But a Punjab politician’s linking of the minister and other Canadian public figures to a Sikh nationalist movement has captivated the news cycle in India in recent days, with initial reports followed by local criticism of the comments and then further accusations from the original instigator.

Here are the key details about the controversy.

1. Who said it, and where?

The comments were made by Captain Amarinder Singh, who recently became chief minister (the equivalent of premier) of the state of Punjab for the second time. His Congress Party’s win in February’s election ended a decade of rule by a coalition consisting of the Shiromani Akali Dal and the Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP), the latter of which is far and away the country’s dominant political force, forming the government at the federal level and in several states.

Singh made the comments on Wednesday while appearing on Off the Cuff, an interview show on NDTV, a prominent English-language news channel.

2. What did he say?

“Canada still has some bit of the old separatist, radical movement left,” Off the Cuff host Shekhar Gupta said. “So is he [Sajjan],” Singh responded. “And so is his father.”

Singh said he would not meet with Sajjan when the minister visits Punjab this week—Sajjan is reportedly scheduled to spend two days in the state. “I’ll tell you on a matter of principle, I don’t agree on this,” Singh said. “There are five ministers [in Canada] who are Khalistanis, and I am not interested in meeting any Khalistanis.” Singh did not name the others at the time.

On Thursday, the Punjab chief minister reportedly released a statement that reiterated his refusal to meet Sajjan. The missive also tagged nine former and current MPs and MPPs, many of whose names were misspelled, whom Singh claimed “were well known for their leanings towards the Khalistani movement.”

3. What is Khalistan?

It’s the ethno-national Sikh state that members of the separatist movement popularly known by the same name seek to create. Militant-military conflict and political battles over the issue dominated the 1970s and 1980s in Punjab. The most prominent flashpoint came in 1984 with Operation Blue Star, when the Indian Army stormed the Golden Temple in Amritsar to remove a group associated with the movement. The military intervention was regarded as a desecration of the holy site. Then-Congress Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated shortly thereafter for ordering it, and her death was followed by anti-Sikh violence that killed thousands, most notably in the country’s capital, New Delhi.

4. What’s been the response to the comments?

The Canadian High Commission in Delhi released a statement calling Singh’s comments “both disappointing and inaccurate.” The chief minister’s stance was also criticized by members of opposition parties in Punjab.

A statement from Jordan Owens, Sajjan’s press secretary, referenced his “lifetime of service to Canada” as a soldier, police officer and MP. “He is not scheduled to meet with any representatives from the Punjab government on his trip,” Owens wrote.

An email to the Indian High Commission in Ottawa seeking comment elicited no response.

5. What’s the background?

The Canada-headquartered World Sikh Organisation (WSO) was formed in the aftermath of Operation Blue Star. Sajjan’s father, Kundan Singh Sajjan, has been referred to in media reports as a former member, former board member, and a member of the group’s national executive. Gupta, the TV host, referenced the WSO in asking Singh about Sajjan, though the minister has said he’s not a member.

Other Canadian cabinet ministers have been targeted with Khalistan-related insinuations. Amarjeet Sohi, the Minister of Infrastructure and Communities, spent almost two years in prison from 1988 to 1990 after police in the state of Bihar arrested him and falsely accused him of being a Khalistani activist who was there to train local extremists. And then-prime minister Stephen Harper courted controversy in the House of Commons in 2007 by linking the Liberals’ stance on anti-terrorism measures to Navdeep Bains, then an opposition MP and now Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development; Bains’ father-in-law was on the RCMP’s potential witness list in connection with the 1985 bombing of Air India Flight 182 by a terror group linked to the Khalistan movement.


 

Behind the local controversy hanging over Harjit Sajjan’s India trip

  1. What a waste of money, there is absolutely no reason to travel to India. This is just a taxpayer trip to his birth place, is justin now paying for a trip home for all members with a home country in their background except of course western countries. Justin should stop with his travels of little vacations.

  2. All identified Khalistanis in the Canadian Govt should refrain from visiting India to conduct official business. You cannot honestly conduct business as usual with a country that you are trying to break up.

    • You are talking about a country where, for a time, the Official Opposition in our Canadian Parliament was formed by politicians elected for the expressed intent of breaking up Canada. Our nation’s business was conducted well enough at the time and Canada is still whole. Canada remained whole, in part, because we didn’t try to silence these politicians.

      Here’s the take-away… if you give people a political voice, give them all the real political power they can muster, then all the talk, talk, talk happens, and it’s okay. If you deny them that power, because they are a threat, then the talk becomes action, a fight, and that’s often not okay. Silencing politicians makes space for the dogs of war. So long as the politicians are jabbering at each other, it’s all good.

      • “Here’s the take-away…”

        Oh say can you see…………….You’re either a Yank or have been watching too much U.S. television.

        You should watch the Punjabi hockey station especially during the anthems.

        A good friend of mine lost his young niece on that flight. What our government did and continues to do by courting that ‘vote’ is disgusting and shameful.

        May those who supported Air India the bombing rot.

        • Does it surprise you that much of the Sikh diaspora, the ones that fled the conflict in India, happen to hold anti-Indian values, as do their children? As I said, when you silence political voices, you create space for violence. I don’t condone violence, but I’m not surprised when it happens.

          Do you somehow think that silencing the political voice of these people in Canada will somehow make Canada or India a more peaceful place? It won’t. The Air India bombing was wrong. As much as can be expected, the people directly responsible were punished. However, as you note, there is a community that sympathises with the underlying cause, if not the resulting violence, and they are a fairly strong community in Canada. They have a political voice in Canada. This should not be a surprise.

          The Canadian Ukrainian community cares about what’s going on “over there,” as did the Tamils before them, and the Irish before that. That is the nature of an immigrant population. They all had and have a political voice in Canada, a diaspora actively courted for votes by Canadian politicians. All we, as a nation, can do is actively dissuade terrorism and its financial support within those groups. However, it would be foolish to attempt to silence their political voices as this would result in more violence, as it always does. It would also be foolish of those nations where people fled to not expect a political backlash when dealing with Canada.

          And, as I’m trying to point out, better a political backlash than the alternative.

      • Well-put, David.
        Canada’s success in dealing with dissent stands as a model for the world. Continuing old battles through generations has resulted, in many countries, in the instability of the country and the diversion of countless resources on both sides of the division that could be used for positive purposes to advance the country’s development.

      • Perhaps the point can be brought home by considering the implications of fostering an American political group within Canada whose purpose is to break up the United States. You think Uncle Sam will send bouquets of flowers to the Canadian government for such anti-America support?
        The loudest voice in India came from a Sikh Chief Minister. You speak of the Sikh diaspora and I am speaking of the Khalistanis amongst them because not all Sikhs belong to the group. I don’t think you know anything of the Blue Star operation in which the Khalistanis caused havoc when they tried to dismember India with the active support of Pakistan. That leaves a deep wound to this day. And will not be forgotten easily.
        As I said, Khalistanis need not be involved in the conduct of Canadian government business with India so that the Canada-India relationship is not dependent on a sour Khalistani relationship.

        • “You think Uncle Sam will send bouquets of flowers to the Canadian government for such anti-America support?”

          Absolutely not, and that’s a good thing. If you had a large group of people in Canada that supported some anti-US stance, and that group attained some level of political control, and that control was used to shift Canadian diplomatic policy towards a more antagonistic position, and that position had some impact on US domestic politics… well, that’s how it’s supposed to work. If you break that chain, somehow silencing that political will, then you need to understand that the underlying force causing it will still exist. That force will appear in other places, and ultimately in very bad places.

          As I said, let the politicians jabber at each other, accuse each other, huff and puff as they will. So long as they’re not inciting violence, it’s all good.

          • So long as they’re not inciting violence: Not inciting violence? What is this, Gandhi’s non-violence?

            “A mechanic from Punjab, living on Vancouver Island, Reyat bought the dynamite, the detonators and the batteries that took the lives of 329 passengers on Air India’s Flight 182, which left from Toronto, stopped in Montreal and exploded over the coast of Ireland on its way to Heathrow Airport in London.”

            What was Blue Star all about? And led by a non-Khalistani Sikh?

            What is fostering antagonism between India and Pakistan? Do you really understand the playbook between India and Pakistan? Most of the world thinks it’s very dangerous in that neighbourhood.

            Yeah, I think for my own sanity, I must yield.

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