One of the worst trips to India I ever had involved a lizard climbing up the inside of my pant leg, a terrifyingly aggressive and determined monkey who stole a special edition Chicago Bulls cap right off of my head, two separate bouts of lice, a rickshaw accident that literally landed me in a pile of cow dung, and diarrhoea so bad that I was hospitalized.
That trip was still better than the one Prime Minister Justin Trudeau just finished.
Without getting into the weeds regarding the pros and cons of wearing a sherwani to a plain kurta party, it would be an understatement to say that the prime minister’s trip to India did not go as planned. It was at times incredibly awkward to watch from afar just how much the Trudeaus tried to out Indian the Indians, and inviting Jaspal Atwal, a man convicted of attempted murder, to an official dinner is not the kind of “guess who’s coming to dinner” talk the government would have hoped for.
WATCH ABOVE: Scheer tries to tie PM Trudeau to single story on Jaspal Atwal invite
Conventional political wisdom would have likely instructed one to not drag out a story that led to overwhelmingly negative media coverage. The Liberals, however, have very bizarrely decided to seemingly endorse the notion that it was the Indian government who was ultimately responsible for the presence of Atwal, in spite of the fact that Liberal backbench MP Randeep Sarai had already accepted responsibility for the kerfuffle. This prompted a categorical repudiation from India’s Ministry of External Affairs, which called the notion “baseless and unacceptable.”
It’s a very weird strategy to have a Festivus-style public airing of grievances against an ally and a country we hope to eventually strike a free trade deal with, but as John Ivison rightfully notes in the National Post, Indian intelligence would have reason to stir up controversy.
This entire debacle, though, has once again unfortunately led to a number of oversimplifications and misinformation from our own media as it relates to the on the ground reality in India.
For starters, the whole issue of India thinking Canada is soft on Khalistani terrorists isn’t exactly new. In fact, it’s about as old as I am, dating back to the Air India bombing. And yet it was largely presented by our media as some novel diplomatic dust-up. I don’t expect every parliamentary reporter who was opining on the trip to know how unimpressed Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi was with Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, but I do expect them to be able to dig into their own archives of just how much of an issue it was for our last prime minister.
Under Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s tenure, the issue of Canada’s Khalistanis became such a sticking point during his talks with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, that Singh refused to even hold a joint press conference with Harper. That was a considerable and quantifiable snub, and yet so many Canadian journalists left out that detail when going on about Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s alleged snub to Trudeau.
But the real crux of the issue is how the Canadian commentariat has presented the Modi government’s own Hindu nationalist ideology, and the issue of Khalistan, or an independent Sikh state.
Modi is the leader of the BJP, a party that openly and explicitly embraces Hindutva, or a Hindu nationalist ideology that seeks to establish Hindu hegemony over India. Literal lynchings of Muslims for purportedly eating beef have risen sharply under Modi’s rule, and roving gangs of gau rakshaks, or cow vigilantes, feel emboldened under a prime minister who oversaw one of the worst acts of mob violence against Muslims back when he was the chief minister for the state of Gujarat. Modi has even been credibly accused of inciting the riots against Muslims. Additionally, Modi’s government is not exactly known for its support of free speech, a free press, or basic human rights.
On the issue of Khalistan, our media has once again failed to provide any context or nuance. As I’ve noted before, anyone with even a superficial understanding of Indian history and politics could see why Sikhs would want an independent state, especially during times when India is ruled by a Hindu nationalist government. But this isn’t even really about Khalistan anymore. This is about Sikhs in Canada, the U.K. and the U.S. speaking out against the Indian government’s treatment of religious minorities generally, and specifically the demand for some sort of justice over the anti-Sikh pogroms in 1984 following Operation Blue Star and the assassination of prime minister Indira Gandhi.
As British journalist Sunny Hundal correctly notes, the underlying issue is that successive Indian governments have seen any demand for justice by the Sikh diaspora as an official agitation for Sikh separatism.
Canadian politicians who either tacitly or actively court any extremist factions should rightfully be called out, but Canadians should be more concerned that a foreign government would tell us what is and isn’t acceptable for our own citizens to be doing when it comes to political mobilization and freedom of speech.
Advocating for justice or the right to peaceful self-determination doesn’t make one a terrorist, and it’s a shame so few in the Canadian media are making that point.