The controversies around Justin Trudeau’s much-publicized trip to India refuse to die down.
On Thursday, the Conservatives introduced a motion to have Trudeau’s national security adviser Daniel Jean testify in front of House of Commons national security committee over his allegations against the Indian government. The motion, however, was blocked by the Liberals.
Last week, Jean told reporters in a background briefing that “factions” in the Indian government facilitated the invitation for Jaspal Atwal, a convicted Sikh extremist, to official Canadian events in India. He went on to suggest Atwal was invited to prevent Indian prime minister Narendra Modi from getting too close to Canada’s Liberal government, which some Indian officials believe is sympathetic to supporters of a Sikh nationalist movement.
Atwal was convicted of the attempted murder of an Indian cabinet minister in 1986 and was a member of the International Sikh Youth Federation, a terrorist group banned in Canada and India. He was sentenced to 20 years in prison by a Canadian judge.
Atwal was also charged with attacking Ujjal Dosanjh, a vocal critic of Sikh extremism, who went on to become premiere of British Columbia. Atwal was later acquitted and has reportedly denied his role in the 1985 attack against Dosanjh.
Dosanjh said he was "speechless" when he heard of Atwal's invitation to the events. "Atwal is well-known to all the Canadian politicians here in Surrey and for anyone to put him on a list … it didn't make sense to me," Dosanjh told VICE News. "It was obviously a colossal mistake. And now Mr. Trudeau and Daniel Jean have compounded those allegations."
Atwal’s name was put on the guestlist of an official reception hosted by the Canadian High Commission in New Delhi by Surrey Centre MP Randeep Sarai. The invitation was later rescinded. Atwal also attended an event in Mumbai where he was photographed with Sophie Gregoire Trudeau and Canadian Infrastructure Minister Amarjeet Sohi.
Jean’s comments drew condemnation from members of the opposition, analysts and the Indian government alike.
India’s government said Jean’s comments were “baseless and unacceptable.”
“Let me categorically state that the Government of India, including the security agencies, had nothing to do with the presence of Jaspal Atwal at the event hosted by the Canadian High Commissioner in Mumbai or the invitation issued to him for the Canadian High Commissioner’s reception in New Delhi,” Raveesh Kumar, a spokesperson for India’s foreign ministry told reporters.
For his part, Trudeau stood by Jean and said “when they [national security officials] highlight that there are concerns around a particular issue, I trust and believe them.”
A source in the Indian government told VICE News that the allegations were an attempt by the Canadian government to essentially save face. The claims by Trudeau’s national security advisor are false and contradictory, the Indian government official said on the condition of anonymity, since Sarai has accepted responsibility for inviting the convicted extremist to official events and resigned as chair of the Pacific Caucus.
The guestlist for events hosted for visiting heads of state is traditionally approved by the highest echelons of power of the guest country, the Indian government source said, a statement echoed by Dosanjh.
“[The allegations] are more outlandish than a combined episode of 'Veep' and 'House of Cards' could bear,” Shuvaloy Majumdar, a Munk Senior Fellow at Canada’s MacDonald-Laurier Institute, told VICE News. “That the Prime Minister is exploiting a national security official to deflect attention from serious concerns about his affiliations with Khalistani extremists is incomprehensible,” he said.
The Trudeau government has repeatedly drawn flak in recent times from Indian officials and critics for allegedly appeasing supporters of Khalistan, a nationalist movement which advocates for an independent Sikh state. However, during his trip to India, Trudeau said he supported a “one united India.”
SECURITY COOPERATION CONCERNS
Analysts say the latest point of contention between the two governments is “not good” for Trudeau’s political relationship with India.
“It’s obviously done damage to Indo-Canada relations,” Shekhar Gupta, Founder and Editor-in-Chief of The Print, an Indian news portal, told VICE News. “Now that [Trudeau’s] done it, he’s drawn a denial from the government of India and it has put him in a sticky situation on a personal level with the government of India,” he said.
India and Canada announced $1 billion in investment deals during the visit, and observers don’t think Jean’s comments will particularly affect trade relations between the two countries. Earlier this week, India was named the world’s fastest growing major economy.
“The business and economic side of the relationship goes on as normal. There isn’t much strategic context to our relationship,” Gupta told VICE News. “Essentially Canada is not such an important country for India right now … and in Canada lots of voters of Indian origin matter particularly to Trudeau,” he said.
Security cooperation between India and Canada could, however, take a hit because of the controversy, said Majumdar. “It would be understandable for New Delhi to treat Ottawa with suspicion,” the Ottawa-based analyst said. “Significant effort is now required to build confidence at both senior political and national security level.”