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.