Minister of National Defence, Canada, Harjit Sajjan with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at the Taj Mahal on February 18

Hostilities between the Punjab CM and ministers in Justin Trudeau’s cabinet regarding the Khalistani movement seems to have stopped any chance of a bromance

NEW DELHI: Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is on the fourth day of his week-long visit to India.

A visit that should have consolidated friendly relations between India and Canada has seemingly turned into a family vacation for Trudeau because the Modi government continues to give him and his ministers the cold shoulder.

Cold-shouldering refers to the conscious dismissal or disregard of someone. It finds its origins in the British practice of welcoming visitors to a house with a hot meal, but giving those who weren’t as welcome only a ‘cold shoulder of mutton.’

Prime Minister Modi who has previously gone out of his way to welcome other heads of states, was conspicuous by his absence at the Delhi airport to welcome the Trudeaus.

The fault-line seems to lie at a crossroads between the importance of freedom of speech in Canada, as defended by Trudeau’s Sikh cabinet ministers, and Punjab CM Amarider Singh’s fear of its impact on Khalistani militancy in his state of Punjab.

What Went Wrong?

A section of the Sikh diaspora in Canada openly supports the creation of a separate Sikh nation – Khalistan, and Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh is not happy about the perceived support this separatist faction is receiving from within Trudeau’s cabinet.

Last month Indian officials were banned from entering gurudwaras in Canada, which set off similar bans in the US.

Trudeau also addressed a parade for ‘Khalsa Day’ in Toronto in April last year, where supposed Sikh ‘militants’ were glorified.

Sajjan’s parents are believed to be associated with the World Sikh Organisation, a Sikh advocacy group which supports the Khalistani movement.

On an episode of Off the Cuff with Shekhar Gupta, chief minister Capt. Amarinder Singh alleged that, “Harjit Sajjan is a Khalistani sympathiser.” The CM claimed that there were in fact five Khalistan sympathisers in Trudeau’s cabinet.

“They had prevailed upon the government to prevent my entry into Canada, where I wanted to go to meet my Punjabi brethren and not to campaign for elections,” Singh added.

Amarinder Singh made it clear that Sajjan would not be welcome in his state. “He’s coming to Punjab… I’m not gonna go, I’’ll put some minister in-charge,” he said. The Punjab CM eventually refused to meet Sajjan during his visit to the state last year.

Born in Bombeli, a small village in the Hoshiarpur District of Punjab, Harjit Sajjan immigrated to Canada with his family when he was five years old. He served as a lieutenant in the Canadian Armed Forces, completing three tours in Afghanistan and another in Bosnia.

He turned to Sikhism in high-school after realising that he had begun to travel in the wrong circles. “I needed the commitment because I knew it would keep me on the right path. I found the true meaning of Sikhism and I loved the warrior aspect of it,” Sajjan said in an interview with Vancouver Sun.

He became the first Sikh commanding officer to head a Canadian regiment.

Sajjan had even invented his own gas mask that could be worn over a beard and has since patented the apparatus.

He was wounded in battle multiple times, and was also rewarded with both the Meritorious Service Medal and the Order of Military Merit.

“I’ve been a police officer, I’ve served my country and any allegations like that is absolutely ridiculous and I find it extremely offensive as well,” said Sajjan about his alleged support of the Khalistani movement.

Trudeau’s infrastructure and communities’ minister Amarjeet Sohi

Member of Parliament for Edmonton Mill Woods and the Minister of Infrastructure and Communities in the Canada federal Cabinet, Amarjeet Sohi | @SohiAmarjeet

“If some people believe in the support or the movement of Khalistan, they’re entitled to do so as long as they do that in a peaceful way,” Sikh minister Amarjeet Sohi had said in the past.

Both Sajjan and Sohi have denied these allegations in multiple public statements. “We neither sympathise with nor espouse the Sikh nationalist movement, which is bent on creating a separate country called Khalistan in India’s Punjab region,” read a statement carried by the Canadian press on Wednesday.

Amarjeet Sohi had moved to Canada from India at the age of 17, and did not speak any English. “Being from a different culture, looking different, I had my share of challenges that newcomers face,” he has said in an interview with Global News.

Sohi was arrested in 1988 in India under the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act (TADA) and remained in jail for over 21 months before being released for lack of evidence. Many of his supporters believe that the case against him was false.

“I happened to be in a place where they thought me of being associated with some of the terrorist groups, which was totally, totally wrong,” Sohi later went on record to say.

On returning to Canada after his release, Sohi drove a bus for more than a decade. Rallying with local governments for better working conditions taught him the inner workings of Edmonton City Hall, from where he began his political career as an elected official in 2007.

“Captain Amarinder has sought a one-to-one meeting with Trudeau during his visit to Punjab to underline his concerns,” said Raveen Thukral, the CM’s media adviser to ThePrint.

On Monday Amarinder Singh tweeted confirming the meeting between the two:

Modi too is said to have spoken to Trudeau about the Khalistani movement in Canada, on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum meet in Davos last month.