Canada’s young and liberal Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, spent last week in India on a visit with his family. Trudeau’s welcoming stance towards refugees, his status as a feminist, and his support for LGBTQ rights have made him a beloved figure worldwide.
However, his trip to India has been met with less admiration. It was controversial in many ways, due to his debatably “lukewarm” reception by the Indian government, an “accidental” invitation to a Sikh separatist, and his persistent choice of traditional dress.
He spent most of his time with his family, seeing the Taj Mahal, doing the Bhangra dance on stage, and dressing up in traditional garments. On three separate occasions, the Trudeau family were photographed in elaborate Indian dress. This caused amusement on social media, with many making fun of the family for overdressing to the levels of a Bollywood film.
Furthermore, the fact that the week-long trip included only one day of official engagements raised accusations that Trudeau used state funds to finance a holiday. Moreover, it seemed as if senior members of the Indian government were avoiding Trudeau.
Upon arrival in Delhi, he was met by a junior minister, rather than Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who has been known to personally greet visitors at the airport. Many commentators saw this as a “snub”, but India’s former high commissioner to Canada, Vishnu Prakash, claimed India was following acceptable diplomacy, and that a personal greeting by Modi would have in fact broken diplomatic protocol.
Later on, the two Prime Ministers did meet, and signed a range of agreements tightening IndoCanadian ties. Some have blamed Trudeau’s lukewarm reception on the accusation that he is too soft on Sikh separatists. The Sikh separatist movement, also called the Khalistan movement, seeks to create a separate Sikh homeland in the state of Punjab.
Sikh separatists and the Indian state have been in violent conflict for decades. The result has been around 80 000 deaths, including that of the former Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, who was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards in 1984. The conflict stopped in 1993, whereby millions of Sikhs left India, and with many settling in Canada, this provided a large voting population for Trudeau.
Trudeau’s cabinet includes four Sikh-Canadians and some members of his government have close alliances with the separatist movement. In the past, there have been tensions between Indian and Canadian officials.
Last year, Punjab’s top official, Amarinder Singh, refused to meet Canadian Defence Minister Harjit Sarjjan because he accused him of being a “Khalistani sympathiser”. However, Trudeau met Singh during his visit, and told the media that they had discussed the “Khalistan issue” and that he had assured Singh that Canada did not support the Sikh separatist movement.
Controversy raised its head yet again on the Sikh issue, as during Trudeau’s visit, an alleged Sikh extremist was invited to an official dinner with Trudeau. The man in question is Jaspal Atwal, a Canadian citizen of Indian origin. Atwal was a member of a Sikh extremist group which has now been banned, who was convicted and later acquitted of attempting to assassinate an Indian minister in 1986.
Interestingly, a few days before this controversy, Atwal was photographed next to Trudeau’s wife in Mumbai. The invitation was consequently withdrawn, and Trudeau has made assurances that he is taking the issue “seriously”.
Many diplomats suggest that too much is being read into the situation, but Canadian Prime Minister Trudeau’s visit to India certainly raised many questions about IndoCanadian relations, especially due to the tensions over Sikh separatists and his family’s almost ridiculous cultural appropriation.
The controversy couldn’t have come at a worse time for the Prime Minister. He has been widely mocked for recent gaffes like the now infamous “peoplekind” comment. Many of Trudeau’s own loyalists who once dismissed the hijab hoax, the Castro eulogy and other gaffes as tolerable quirks now seem less patient.