February 8, 2018 10:27 am
Updated: March 26, 2018 4:54 pm

Sikh nationalism will overshadow Justin Trudeau’s trip to India: expert

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau sits with members of the Sikh community and government caucus during a Vaisakhi Celebration on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Monday April 11, 2016.

THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
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As politicians downplay the existence of Sikh extremism in Canada, one Indo-Canadian expert says the topic can’t be downplayed during the prime minister’s upcoming trip to India.

“I think that there’s no question that the whole Khalistan question will overshadow this trip,” said Vivek Dehejia, an associate professor at Carleton University who is also a fellow at the IDFC Institute think-tank in Mumbai.

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His comments follow a cover photo of Justin Trudeau on Outlook India with the headline, “Khalistan II — Made in Canada.” Several articles in the publication accuse the Canadian government of being complicit in a rise in Sikh terrorism, and sympathetic to the Sikh nationalist cause, which looks to create a separate nation in the Punjab region called Khalistan.

“I think to be fair, there is sometimes a feeling that some Sikh-Canadian politicians maybe are playing to a Khalistani gallery back here in Canada,” said Dehejia. “It helps to win votes in that particular community and those kinds of statements aren’t helpful, frankly, because India doesn’t take kindly to appearing to condone a separatist movement.”

“Throughout my life, I have been one of the strongest opponents of the Khalistani movement,” said Infrastructure Minister Amarjeet Sohi on Wednesday.

WATCH: Sikh religious succession in India a non-issue to Canadians: Sohi

“I think this is a perceived issue in the Indian media. I was asked about this last year when I was in India on a business trip and I was very clear this is not an issue in Canada,” said the MP for Edmonton Mill Woods.

“If there’s a small segment of people in Canada who talk about separation, who talk about the creation of Khalistan, if they do so in a peaceful way, that’s their right to do so, but it’s not something I hear about in the community.”

Sohi is one of four Sikh cabinet ministers, alongside Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan.

In one of the Outlook India articles, Chief Minister of Punjab Amarinder Singh said: “On the face of it, there seems to be evidence that there are Khalistani sympathizers in [Canadian PM] Trudeau’s cabinet.” A different article referenced Singh’s announcement last year that he would avoid Sajjan on his India visit, and directly called him a Khalistani sympathizer.

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“I find that absolutely ridiculous,” Sajjan said Wednesday of the allegations in the publication. “I’ve been a police officer, I’ve served my country and any allegations like that I find ridiculous and offensive as well.”

WATCH: Accusations of Canada being complicit in rise of Sikh terrorism ‘absolutely ridiculous’: Sajjan

Sajjan said his government will investigate any information about Sikh extremist behavior and take it “extremely seriously.”

The Outlook India articles also referenced NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh several times, including a nod to how he stopped short of naming Talminder Singh Parmar, the mastermind behind the 1985 Air India bombing, in his condemnation of terrorism.

But Singh was more than clear Wednesday, coming to the strong defence of the Liberal government. “They are baseless accusations against the government and baseless accusations against members of cabinet and the government and I think that they’re completely unfounded and unacceptable,” he said of the publication.

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While Vivek Dehejia said sometimes Indians overreact on this topic, he believes there’s a “real gap” on this issue between the two countries.

“I think India would like Canada to do more to take seriously the motion there are homegrown sympathizers of what was a terrorist organization, let’s face it, that bombed an aircraft, and I think their sense is that Canada’s not doing enough, not taking it seriously enough, and I think there may be a grain of truth to that.

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A government official speaking on background tells Global News the Khalistan topic is not expected to be a big issue on the upcoming trip, and that Canada’s position in support of a united India has not changed.

More than one million people of Indian descent live in Canada. According to the most recent information on religion available from Statistics Canada, 454,965 people identified as Sikh in 2011. The majority are concentrated in Vancouver and in the Great Toronto Area, making their political influence significant in this country. Sikhs account for a very small minority in India.

Justin Trudeau heads to India next week. The long-awaited state visit is focused on bolstering economic and cultural connections between the two countries.

© 2018 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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