The Indian government is responding angrily to allegations from a senior Canadian official that rogue Indian officials tried to sabotage Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s visit to the country by arranging the controversial dinner invitation for a businessman with a background in Sikh separatist terrorism.
Trudeau’s visit to India turned into a diplomatic nightmare for Canada for a number of reasons, most prominently the invitation of Jaspal Atwal to a reception in New Delhi. Atwal was charged with involvement in two attempted murders in Canada during the 1980s when he belonged to the youth wing of the Sikh separatist Khalistani Movement. He was convicted on one of those offenses, acquitted on a technicality, and later admitted to his role in the attack.
The Khalistani Movement, so named for the independent Sikh state it seeks to carve out of India, has recently become a serious concern for the Indian government after a decade of relative inactivity. India has complained about financial support for the movement from Sikhs in Canada and became infuriated when Trudeau mocked their concerns as groundless religious bigotry. He seemed to be making some progress toward patching things up during his trip to India, but then the Atwal bombshell detonated, and Trudeau’s team spent the rest of his visit on damage control.
Trudeau’s administration settled on MP Randeep Sarai as the fall guy for the Atwal disaster, and Sarai seemed to accept the role by taking full responsibility for arranging the invitation. But then an anonymous senior government official suggested “rogue political elements in India” actually orchestrated the Atwal fiasco to embarrass Trudeau and play on Indian fears that the Canadian government sympathizes with Sikh separatists. The official was later identified by opposition politicians as National Security and Intelligence Adviser Daniel Jean.
“The official said questions should be asked of the Indian government about how Jaspal Atwal, convicted in the attempted murder of an Indian cabinet minister visiting Canada in 1986, was taken off a blacklist of people banned by India from entering the country—and then suddenly surfaced during Trudeau’s visit,” Canada’s CBC News reported last week.
This was a reference to Atwal’s puzzling removal from India’s famously strict travel blacklist, something Indian officials conceded they could not readily explain. Alternatively, some blame India for deciding Atwal merited removal from the blacklist but then objecting so strongly to his presence at Trudeau events in India.
By the time Trudeau was wheels-down in Canada, the two governments seemed to have settled on grudgingly forgiving each other for dropping the ball on vetting the reception guests.
The diplomatic wound evidently cannot be left alone to heal, because Trudeau outraged India anew by standing up for this anonymous government official at the House of Commons on Tuesday.
“Will the prime minister tell the house whether or not anyone in his office arranged, organized or participated in the media briefing provided to reporters that included the allegation that the Government of India was somehow involved in his embarrassing blunder in India?” opposition leader Andrew Scheer asked Trudeau.
“Our professional, non-partisan public service does high-quality work and when one of our top diplomats and security officials says something to Canadians, it’s because they know it to be true,” Trudeau replied.
“Before our prime minister destroys our relationship with our ally, the government and country of India, will he please tell this House what proof he has of that allegation?” Tory MP Candice Bergen asked of Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale, who was left to bat cleanup for the prime minister.
Goodale shot back that Bergen’s “insinuations and her accusations are false,” but other parliamentary critics accused Trudeau and his party of clumsily pandering to Canadian Sikhs and spinning conspiracy theories to blame the Indian government when the plan went awry.
“What was the prime minister thinking, putting the interests of the Liberal machine ahead of national security, international relations and Canada’s reputation?” thundered MP Charlie Angus of the New Democrats.
India’s Ministry of External Affairs responded swiftly with a denunciation of Trudeau’s remarks:
We 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. Any suggestion to the contrary is baseless and unacceptable.
The Times of India groaned that “India-Canada relations appear headed into rough weather again” as the controversy resurfaced. India’s NDTV puckishly noted that after snubbing Trudeau when he arrived in India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi made a point of greeting King Abdullah of Jordan at the airport on Tuesday.
Outrage was not limited to India, as Terry Glavin at Maclean’s predicted on Tuesday that Trudeau’s effort to save Daniel Jean’s career will fail, the opposition will draw blood by arguing that Jean was unqualified for the national security adviser post to begin with, India will once again doubt Canada’s commitment to rejecting Khalistani extremism, and Randeep Sarai will no longer be able to take the hit for arranging Atwal’s invitation.
Glavin also suspects India will draw unhappy conclusions from Trudeau’s eagerness to please its rival China while treating Indian security interests with such cavalier disdain.
“For a while there, it looked like there was a glimmer of good news to come from the cringe-making embarrassment and breathtaking incompetence that attended to Trudeau’s absurd fashion-show caravan at every turn as it trundled across India last week. It looked like the long overdue Canada-India Framework for Cooperation on Countering Terrorism and Violent Extremism had not been sabotaged, after all, by Daniel Jean’s unaccountably bizarre, last-minute intervention. That is not so certain now,” Glavin sighed.