Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has returned from what was by all accounts a disastrous visit to India.
Things started off badly: Mr Trudeau appeared more interested in showing off a new Bollywood-style wardrobe (much to the bemusement of the Indian media) than concluding the important trade deals that were supposedly the reason for the trip. Only half a day of official business transpired during the eight day trip.
But things took a catastrophic turn when Liberal Party backbencher Randeep Sarai invited convicted political assassin Jaspal Atwal to a Canadian High Commission reception. Atwal was photographed standing next to Justin Trudeau’s wife Sophie. And then all hell broke loose.
Jaspal Atwal, a convicted Khalistani terrorist who was active in the banned Int’l Sikh Youth Federation, photographed w/Canadian PM’s wife Sophie Trudeau at an event in Mumbai on 20 Feb. He was also invited for formal dinner with Canadian PM, invite being rescinded now (CBC News) pic.twitter.com/pT7P3eLq1L
— ANI (@ANI) 22 February 2018
Who is Jaspal Atwal, anyway?
Jaspal Atwal was a member of the International Sikh Youth Federation (ISYF), which despite its banal name was a terrorist organization. The ISYF agitated, as a minority of Sikhs do today, for the creation of a a Sikh homeland known as Khalistan. The group gained international notoriety when its leader Talwinder Parmar bombed an Air India flight in 1985, killing 331 people.
According to the New India Express, “Atwal was among the four men who attempted to assassinate Punjab minister Malkiat Singh Sidhu on Vancouver Island in 1986. The men ambushed Sidhu during a private trip to Canada and fired shots at his car.
“A trial court convicted him and sentenced Atwal and others to 20 years’ imprisonment. The trial court described the assassination bid as an ‘act of terrorism.’ Atwal appealed against the trial court verdict and it was overturned.”
Why was Justin Trudeau handing out with an assassin?
Justin Trudeau was obviously pretty upset when the story of the assassin and Indian separatist attending his function in India hit the global media.
“The situation was unacceptable; this individual never should have been invited,” he said. “The MP responsible has taken responsibility, and I will be having a conversation with that MP in Canada next week.”
That MP, Randeep Sarai, had joined the Trudeau delegation from British Columbia at his own expense and been prominently photographed at all events. Once the Atwal controversy blew up, however, he disappeared and was not seen from again.
A Sikh like Atwal, Sarai is part of an influential group of Sikh Liberal politicians. There are currently four Sikh’s in Justin Trudeau’s cabinet – more than in the Indian cabinet.
While not large numerically, the Sikh community in Canada is well organized politically and are a constituency Liberal leaders will always want to appeal to. This explains Trudeau’s trip itinerary, which was packed with visits to Sikh holy spots like the Golden Temple in Amritsar. It also explain’s the Prime Minister’s unscheduled visit with Amarinder Singh, the Chief Minister of Punjab, the Sikh heartland.
It was at this meeting that the subject of separatists – both those supporting and independent Khalistan and those supporting an independent Quebec – first hit the media. Trudeau was reported widely as having made a comparison between the two movements.
The Prime Minister denied this gaffe saying, “The reports are false; I said nothing of the sort.”
Who’s fault is it anyway?
The Prime Minister did not invite Atwal to the reception, and with a reported 800 attendees it is easy to see how someone unsavory could slip onto the guest list. But still he has no one to blame but himself for the fiasco of a trip.
Clearly designed more for generating good headlines back home than any real accomplishment, the spin heavy itinerary was criticized heavily from the outset.
Justin Trudeau claimed that the trip was a success, saying, “Obviously the business announcements we made of $1 billion in back-and-forth investments, of close to 6,000 jobs created in Canada has been the focus of this week for us.”
But according to Carlton University economist Vivek Dehejia, Trudeau misspoke when he claimed to have agreed C$1 billion in deals during the trip.
“Actually that is the total investment between the two countries,” Dehejia told the CBC radio program, the House. “It’s more like $150-200 million. It’s not peanuts, but it’s not a billion and it’s not exactly something that justifies and eight day grand tour that the Prime Minister and his entourage just took.”
And, even more damning for Trudeau, pictures of Jaspal Atwal standing next to Trudeau at a South Asian Media Roundtable press conference in 2015 surfaced as well. So when it comes to accidentally associating with convicted assassins, Trudeau seems perfectly capable of this on his own without the help of backbench MPs.
Walking back the assassin thing
Fortunately for Justin Trudeau, he had a genuine Indo-Canadian superstar in his delegation to assure everyone that, contrary to appearances, Canada supports a united India.
Ruby Dhalla, a Sikh former Liberal minister (and global fashion star) told the Hindustan Times:
“Canada believes in a united India… Punjabis and Sikhs (in Canada) are interested in a united and strong India.
“In Canada, there is no space for religion to be used for political motives to promote any type of extremism”
No room for extremism, but plenty of room for gaffe-prone international visits.