Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has denied that he’s being given the cold shoulder by the Indian government over its concerns about Sikh separatists in Canada, amid fears the issue could hinder Canada’s mission to expand trade with the world’s second-most populous country.
Three days into his first official state visit to India, Trudeau and family have managed several photo opportunities at the Taj Mahal and other famous sites, but he is yet to meet with any senior members of the Indian government.
Trudeau was greeted by a junior agriculture minister upon arrival in New Delhi, and isn’t scheduled to meet with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi until Friday, Feb. 23, six days into his trip.
It’s not common protocol for Indian prime ministers to greet visiting heads of government on the tarmac — former prime minister Stephen Harper wasn’t greeted by Modi’s predecessor Manmohan Singh in 2012. But the social media-savvy Modi is yet to even tweet a welcome message to Trudeau, although he tweeted a photo of himself meeting with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani the same day that Trudeau landed in India.
Asked about the matter by Global National correspondent Abigail Bimman on Monday, Trudeau said all was well between him and Modi.
“I last met with the prime minister just a few weeks ago in Davos. I’ve met him a number of times in various places around the world, and I’m very pleased to be here. I’m looking forward to sitting down with him on Friday,” Trudeau said.
“But in the meantime, as you’ve seen, we are engaging as we must with such a deep and multi-faceted relationship as the friendship between Canada and India. It’s not just about political ties, it’s about deep business and economic ties, that we can and will grow.”
On Monday, Trudeau confirmed that he would be meeting with Punjab’s chief minister (head of government) Amarinder Singh, after previously denying Indian media reports that the two were set to meet.
Singh has previously accused members of Trudeau’s cabinet, including Defense Minister Harjit Sajjan, of being connected to Sikh separatists who want to create an ethno-state called Khalistan in Punjab.
WATCH: Trudeau to meet Punjab premier who accused Canada of supporting Sikh separatism
Former B.C. premier Ujjal Dosanjh, who was born in India’s Sikh-majority Punjab state, says people might be reading too much into the fact that Trudeau is yet to meet with Modi — but that doesn’t mean there isn’t serious cause for concern.
Dosanjh says Singh, an Indian war hero and vocal opponent of the Khalistan movement, was willing to set aside his differences with Sikh separatists to meet with Trudeau, but was snubbed by the Trudeau government before it later changed its mind.
“Now that simply reaffirms in many people’s minds that Mr. Trudeau’s government may have Khalistanis in it, or sympathizers.”
WATCH: Sajjan says accusations of Canada being complicit in rise of Sikh terrorism ‘absolutely ridiculous’
Singh and Modi belong to rival political parties in India, but are united in their common concern about Sikh separatists in Canada, Dosanjh said.
“I think this goes beyond politics for India.”
The issue crosses the Canadian political divide too, Dosanjh added.
But Dosanjh hailed Canada’s change of heart and news of Trudeau confirming the meeting with Singh, although it’s unclear whether Sajjan will be involved.
“I don’t know why they’ve changed their mind, but I think it’s a good thing… better late than never,” he said. “Canada has not been cognizant of the importance of the Khalistan issue. But hopefully, now they will be.”
Dosanjh said strong Canada-India relations are important to grow trade ties — bilateral trade between the two countries amounts to only about $8 billion annually.
“Even trade between Iran and India is much larger than that.”
Shuvaloy Majumdar, a foreign policy analyst and Munk Senior Fellow with the Macdonald-Laurier Institute in Ottawa, says Canada needs to act now to exploit emerging trade opportunities in India.
For decades, India stubbornly clung to the notion of being a self-sustaining state, Majumdar said, but its economy has opened up to the outside world to an unprecedented degree under business-minded prime minister Modi since his election in 2014 — and Canadian investors are eager to take advantage.
“Whether it’s technology, agriculture or institutional investors like the Canadian pension funds, we’re starting to see that the macroeconomic reforms of the Modi government in India are yielding a better business climate, and Canadian investors and trade partners are starting to take note of it,” Majumdar said.
“The opportunity of India’s economic development is something that Canada’s very well suited to be a partner of, and Canadian firms can do very well by participating in it and taking a long-term view towards it.”
But if Canada is to reap the fruits of a healthier trade relationship with India, it first needs to pay heed to Indian sensitivities on the Khalistan issue, says Majumdar.
“There’s a great suspicion that the Indian government has towards the kind of constituencies that some political leaders in Canada depend on when it comes to their own political success in Canada,” Majumdar said. “It’s creating some inhibitions from a government and country like India to work more closely with Canadian partners.
“There are some great opportunities… and it’s always important to see political leaders echo that and indicate that this is a welcome advent, if they can navigate the thorny political issues.”
Trudeau is scheduled to meet with Indian business tycoons on Tuesday, before meeting with Punjab chief minister Singh on Wednesday. He will then give a lecture to Canadian and Indian business leaders on Thursday, before meeting with Prime Minister Modi on Friday and wrapping up his week-long visit Saturday.