Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi scolded Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at the G20 summit in New Delhi, India, on Sunday because Canada allows Sikh groups to promote what Modi described as “secessionism.”
After defending Canada’s commitment to freedom of expression, Trudeau found himself stuck in India due to “technical issues” with his plane.
The Indian government released a statement about Modi’s conversation with Trudeau regarding Sikh demonstrations, a persistent sticking point in relations between India and Canada.
According to the statement, Modi told Trudeau that Sikh demonstrators in Canada are “promoting secessionism and inciting violence against Indian diplomats, damaging diplomatic premises and threatening the Indian community in Canada and their places of worship.”
Modi added that strained relations between Canada and India could not be improved unless Trudeau’s government takes steps to rein in the Sikh secessionists, also known as the “Khalistan movement.”
Modi warned Trudeau that the Khalistan movement has links to organized crime, drugs, and human trafficking, which should be Canadian security concerns as much as they are Indian concerns.
“It is essential for the two countries to cooperate in dealing with such threats,” Modi said.
The Times of India (TOI) reported that Trudeau sought a formal bilateral meeting with Modi, but his request was refused, and the Canadian prime minister had to settle for a brief, informal “pull-aside” at the G20 summit.
TOI added that India’s Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar was even more critical of the Canadians, blasting them for “vote-bank politics” that make local officials reluctant to alienate well-heeled and politically organized Khalistan activists in their districts.
Jaishankar has warned that India would “have to respond if activities in Canada impinged on India’s security and integrity.”
“Khalistan” is the name of a Sikh separatist movement and the name of a prospective Sikh nation the movement wishes to carve out of India’s Punjab region. Canada has the largest population of Sikhs outside of India, so Sikh issues are often reflected in Canadian political activism.
The militant wing of the Khalistan movement has been responsible for some mayhem over the years, and the Indian government has used force to suppress it, including the 1984 killing of movement founder Jarnail Singh Bhindrawale and a large number of his followers in a Sikh temple.
Indira Gandhi, the Indian prime minister who commissioned the assault on Bhindrawale’s temple, was assassinated by two of her Sikh bodyguards later that year. In June 2023, Modi’s government was outraged when Canada permitted Sikh activists in Brampton to display a parade float that glorified Gandhi’s assassination. The float showed Gandhi’s bodyguards pumping bullets into her blood-soaked body beneath a poster that said “REVENGE.”
On Sunday, the leader of a U.S.-based Khalistani group called Sikhs for Justice (SFJ) used a rally in Canada to make death threats against Modi, Jaishankar, and several other Indian politicians.
“This is a message to those who assassinated Hardeep Singh Nijjar. We are calling for your critical death … Modi, Jaishankar, Doval, Shah, we are coming for you,” said SFJ Chief Gurpatwant Singh Pannun.
Amit Shah is the Union Home Minister of India, while Ajit Doval is Modi’s National Security Adviser.
Hardeep Singh Nijar was a prominent Sikh leader and Khalistani activist in Canada who was murdered by masked gunmen outside a temple in British Columbia in June 2023. Some Sikh activists believe the Indian government ordered Nijar’s killing. Large Sikh rallies in Canada branded Indian diplomats as Nijar’s “killers,” raising concerns about their safety.
Trudeau responded to Modi’s criticism in New Delhi by giving a press conference in which he defended Canada’s traditions of “freedom of expression, freedom of conscience, and peaceful protest.” Trudeau’s enthusiasm for those freedoms diminishes quite a bit when he is the target of the protests, as Freedom Convoy truckers who demonstrated against his draconian coronavirus policies can attest.
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“At the same time as we are always there to prevent violence, to push back against hatred,” Trudeau assured his Indian audience.
“I think on the issue of the community, it is important to remember that the actions of the few do not represent the entire community or Canada. The flip side of it, we also highlighted the importance of respecting the rule of law,” he said, continuing:
We recognise that India is an extraordinarily important economy in the world and an important partner to Canada on everything from fighting climate change to creating growth and prosperity for the citizens. There is always a lot of work to do, and we will continue to do it.
Trudeau’s office said on Sunday that his return to Canada from New Delhi was delayed because of unspecified “technical issues” with his plane.
“These issues are not fixable overnight; our delegation will be staying in India until alternate arrangements are made,” Trudeau’s office said.
According to Rahul Kanwal, news director for India Today, the Indian government chose not to offer Trudeau a ride home because it was miffed at him over the Khalistani issue:
Government of India is actively seeking to communicate displeasure to the Canadian Government for backing Khalistani separatists. Otherwise, we could have just offered an Indian VIP jet to take @JustinTrudeau home. Highly embarrassing to get stuck like this and with no one to…
— Rahul Kanwal (@rahulkanwal) September 12, 2023
Indian government officials later told India Today they offered Trudeau the use of Air India One, a brace of two executive planes used by Modi and the Indian presidency, on Monday. After mulling over the offer for about six hours, the Canadian government declined and said Trudeau would wait for his own plane to be fixed.
Trudeau’s plane was repaired, and he departed on Tuesday, about 36 hours behind schedule. His flight delay was mocked by Indian social media users and the Canadian opposition, including Conservative Party of Canada (CPC) leader Pierre Polievre, who said it was fitting that the prime minister “gets to experience the same flight delays he has imposed on Canadians through his mismanagement of federal airports.”
“Putting partisanship aside, no one likes to see a Canadian prime minister repeatedly humiliated and trampled upon by the rest of the world,” Polievre said of Trudeau’s trip to the G20 summit in India.