Sikh Canadian pro-separatist figures are hailing Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s trip to India as a success, and slamming the Indian government for its supposedly frosty treatment of Trudeau during much of his visit.
Trudeau, who arrived back in Ottawa Sunday morning, spent much of his time in India dodging and scrambling to address allegations that his government has helped nurture Sikh extremists, unwittingly or otherwise.
The issue garnered Trudeau criticism in both Canada and India, with the biggest controversy during the trip being the invitation of convicted attempted murderer Jaspal Atwal to a dinner reception hosted by Canada’s high commissioner — and the Prime Minister’s Office’s subsequent attempt to shift the blame for the fiasco onto India.
But Trudeau’s trip, and the reception afforded to him by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, are being perceived differently by Sikh separatists, who support the creation of an ethnostate called Khalistan in India’s Punjab state.
Trudeau’s meeting with Capt. Singh, an Indian war hero and vocal opponent of Khalistan, was one of the flashpoints of the trip. Singh had previously accused some of Trudeau’s Sikh cabinet ministers, including Defense Minister Harjit Sajjan, of being connected to separatists.
After their meeting, Singh told Indian media that Trudeau promised to look into curbing the activities of Sikh Canadian extremists who have allegedly financed violent attacks in India.
Meanwhile, Trudeau assured that “Canada supports one, united India and that we are unanimous as a government, as ministers, on this issue.”
WATCH: Trudeau reiterates denial of Sikh separatists in cabinet, condemns extremism
So heavy was the interest in Trudeau’s trip among Sikh Canadian separatists that one journalist-activist travelled all the way to India to follow the Canadian contingent.
Manveer Singh Saini, a Montreal-based contributor to Punjabi-language news outlet TV84, was not a member of the official Canadian media delegation in India. But that didn’t stop him from gaining access to the travelling Canadian MPs, as he interviewed Brampton, Ont., MP Ruby Sahota in New Delhi on Tuesday, and Winnipeg MP Kevin Lamoureux at the Sikh Golden Temple in Amritsar on Thursday.
Saini told Global News that he also met Surrey, B.C., MP Randeep Sarai, who admitted to being responsible for the invitation extended to Atwal.
Saini’s proximity to Trudeau’s entourage created a social media stir after photos emerged on Twitter which suggested that he holds strong pro-separatist and anti-Modi views.
One photo showed Saini and other activists holding up a banner saying “India out of Khalistan,” with Modi’s official aircraft Air India One seen behind them at Ottawa International Airport, during Modi’s 2015 visit to Canada.
Another photo showed Saini posing with an unidentified woman and two children, one of whom was holding up a sign which read, “Modi is a terrorist.”
“I accept those pictures are mine,” Saini told Global News. “It’s my opinion. I was protesting against a man who killed many people,” he said, referring to communal riots in Modi’s home state of Gujarat in 2002.
Modi was accused of tacitly supporting — or at the very least, turning a blind eye to — the riots, which left nearly 2,000 people dead, mostly Muslims. Investigators appointed by India’s Supreme Court cleared him in 2012, citing a lack of evidence.
As for Khalistan, Saini says he has no inhibitions against expressing his support for the movement.
“That’s my opinion, and I have a right to have an opinion like everybody in Canada,” he said.
“I’m not violating anyone’s human rights, and I’m not supporting violence. My opinion is that if the people of Punjab want their own homeland, they have a right to demand that as long as it’s peaceful.
Anti-Sikh riots in 1984 left thousands dead in India, with the Ontario Legislature passing a motion last year declaring the riots an act of genocide.
Saini also insisted that Trudeau’s trip to India was a great success.
“As I see it, the trip was very successful,” he said. “In Delhi, Punjab and all the other places where I went, everybody was very happy that the Canadian PM is giving an opportunity to start a new era of business, and nice relationship between people of Canada and India.”
WATCH: Trudeau calls India tour ‘excellent’ despite controversy over invite to Sikh extremist
He added that he believes the Atwal controversy was manufactured by Indian intelligence agencies to sow discord and discredit Trudeau, citing a senior Canadian bureaucrat’s line that unscrupulous elements within the Indian government engineered Atwal’s appearance.
It’s a conspiracy theory that was also peddled by a TV84 Facebook post from Thursday evening.
Indeed much of TV84’s reporting and social media posts indicate an unabashedly pro-Khalistan stance. Despite Saini’s insistence that he supports the peaceful creation of Khalistan, one TV84 Facebook post from Wednesday night touted “war between Hindu land and Sikh Punjab.”
Another proclaimed that, “The intelligent west now will understand well, why Sikhs need a Nation of their own i.e. KHALISTAN.”
Saini also criticized Punjab chief minister Singh, claiming that Singh was himself a Khalistan supporter. He pointed out that Singh is a signatory to the Amritsar Declaration, a 1994 document which called for the Indian government to grant states the right to self-determination.
However, one of the Sikh scholars who drafted the manifesto told the Times of India in 2015 that the document called for self-determination “within the framework of the Indian constitution,” rather than demanding that Sikhs take the matter into their own hands.
WATCH: Trudeau meets Modi after tumultuous India trip
Global News reached out to the PMO to ask why such a well-known pro-Khalistan activist was allowed seemingly unfettered access to Canada’s MPs, given the longstanding tensions between Canada and India on the Sikh separatist issue. The PMO is yet to issue a response.
MPs Sahota and Lamoureux were also asked to comment.
During Sahota’s TV84 interview with Saini, she was asked for her response to the low-key welcome given to Trudeau upon his arrival in New Delhi, with Modi sending a junior agriculture minister to greet Trudeau at the airport, instead of showing up himself
Former B.C. premier Ujjal Dosanjh eviscerated the likes of Sahota and Sarai for granting interviews to Saini, whom he described as “fringe of the fringe” within the Sikh community.
“Liberal MPs are up to their asses — many of them — in this,” said Dosanjh, an opponent of the Khalistan movement.
“I’m not surprised. That’s why we had the Atwal incident. That’s why the government of India was mad at Canada.”
WATCH: Canadian politicians should pay attention to sensitivities around India-Canada relations: Dosanjh
Dosanjh added that he thinks it’s unlikely that Winnipeg MP Lamoureux knew about the connections between Saini, TV84 and Sikh separatism, but the same cannot be said about Sikh MPs like Sahota and Sarai.
“It boggles the mind,” he said.
“Why are you in politics? Just for personal glory? Or is there anything you want to achieve that is laudable? Destruction and disruption are not laudable.”