Mollifying India over its persistent concerns about “Sikh extremism” was top of mind for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his delegation during their visit to South Asia last year, declassified records show, even as the government now acknowledges the use of the term unfairly maligns an entire community.
Canada finds itself in a difficult spot — accused of pandering to both sides, said Anil Varughese, a professor of public policy at Carleton University. On the one hand, it wants to show support for India and its concerns about territorial integrity. On the other hand, there’s an “electorally significant minority” of Sikhs back home whose interests it also can’t ignore.
“Canada is trying to balance these competing demands,” he said.
Pressure was building to stabilize relations between Canada and India, according to a Feb. 13, 2018, briefing note prepared for Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland days before her official visit.
“The visit has the potential to reflect a genuine turning point in the Canada-India relationship,” said the document, which was obtained under access-to-information laws. “There is much we can offer each other, in commercial and security terms and in the fruits of collaboration in international fora. Although the road may not always be smooth, India is clearly an emerging power that will remain at the centre of Asian economic and geo-political developments for decades to come.”
To that end, “Sikh extremism” was highlighted as a chief talking point in a memo provided to Freeland in advance of her meeting with India’s national security adviser, Ajit Doval. It appeared to be a direct response to the drumbeat of criticism that had been levelled by Indian officials at Canada for not doing enough to address a perceived rise in extremism among Sikhs who seek an independent homeland.
Under “Top Line Messages,” Freeland was encouraged to tell Doval that “Canada takes Sikh extremism seriously and respects India’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.” There were additional bullet points about how Canada was being responsive to “Sikh Terrorism,” but they were redacted.
“Despite the fact that there have been no incidents of extremist violence associated with the Sikh community in Canada for decades and no actual evidence has ever been provided to substantiate these allegations, India has made ‘Sikh extremism’ a key issue in Canada-India relations,” Balpreet Singh, legal counsel for the World Sikh Organization of Canada, said in an email.
“It is disappointing … that the Canadian government seems to have bought into this Indian rhetoric and gone down the path of appeasing the Indian government on this issue.”
Canada has since abandoned using the term Sikh extremism, acknowledging that it “unintentionally impugns an entire religion.” It was prompted to do so after coming under heavy criticism from several groups within Canada’s Sikh community for using the term in its most recent annual public report on the terrorism threat in the country.
The report noted that while violent activities in support of an independent Sikh homeland (Khalistan) in India have fallen since the 1980s, when terrorists carried out the bombing of an Air India flight, support for the extreme ideologies of such groups remains, including through financing.
The decision, however, to scrub the term from the report has led to accusations that Canada too easily succumbed to pressure from the Sikh community. The Hindustan Times reported last month that Indian officials were “aghast at the perceived capitulation to pressure.”
Canada’s attempts to placate India over its security concerns didn’t stop with Freeland. A report released in December by a special committee of parliamentarians tasked with reviewing the trip to India found that Canada’s then-national security adviser, Daniel Jean, was also “deeply invested in addressing Indian security concerns about Canada and the Canadian government in order to ensure the success of the prime minister’s trip.”
Before the official visit to India by Trudeau and his delegation, Jean organized separate trips to India involving RCMP, CSIS and counterterrorism officials in an effort to “allay Indian concerns about Canadian efforts to address Sikh extremism in Canada,” the report found.
Jean then signed a joint statement with his counterpart in New Delhi establishing a “framework for co-operation on countering terrorism and violent extremism.”
Despite the Canadian government’s attempts at pacifying the Asian giant, the trip was widely mocked for a series of blunders, including the attendance at an event by Jaspal Atwal, who was convicted of attempting to murder an Indian cabinet minister in B.C. in 1986.
What does this mean for Canada’s relations with India going forward?
“The perception problem is a real one and a consequential one,” Varughese said. “These are two established democracies. India shares a lot of the same values. There is a large (Indian) diaspora within Canada. Trade potential is enormous.”
Failing to manage this perception problem could result in domestic backlash with minority votes swinging one way or another, he said. Or it could also result in an even colder relationship with India.
“Like any other issue it’s very hard to get it right but easy to get it wrong,” he said. “There are constituencies on both sides that won’t be happy with whatever the government does.”