Toronto Star: Sikhs protest Toronto visit by Indian minister

An Indian minister’s visit and a private meeting with Premier Dalton McGuinty have unleashed a political maelstrom among Sikhs in the Toronto area, who say they will work to unseat the Liberals.

Rob Ferguson
Raveena Aulakh

An Indian minister’s visit and a private meeting with Premier Dalton McGuinty have unleashed a political maelstrom among Sikhs in the Toronto area, who say they will work to unseat the Liberals.

“Unless they make amends quickly, the Liberals will definitely lose this community’s votes,” said Harbans Jandali, president of Ontario Sikh and Gurdwara Council. “This is a sensitive issue for the Sikhs.”

Jandali, along with almost 500 other Sikh demonstrators, was outside the King Edward Hotel in downtown Toronto where Kamal Nath, minister of road transport and highways in India, addressed the Canada-India Business Council.

Nath is accused of helping organize deadly riots against Sikhs in November 1984 after the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards in New Delhi. More than 3,000 Sikhs were killed in four days across India.

Demonstrators, occupying sidewalks in front of the hotel Tuesday, screamed: “Go back, Kamal Nath” and “Kamal Nath: Killer of Sikhs.”

The community began protesting Nath’s visit earlier in the week and Liberal MPPs for the Brampton area have been on the receiving end of many angry emails from Sikhs. But the opposition reached a frenzy after news broke of the Indian minister’s meeting with McGuinty.

“We had hoped that the government would listen to us and his visit would end,” said Lovleen Kaur, a York University student and one of organizers of the protest. “We didn’t want to do this,” she said pointing at the angry crowd.

But McGuinty defended the 30-minute tete-a-tete behind closed doors with Nath on Tuesday.

McGuinty, who said earlier this week he was unaware of the allegations against Nath despite two previous meetings with him on trade missions to India, told reporters that he prefers a policy of “open engagement” with foreign dignitaries to show how people of many ethnic backgrounds get along in the province.

As the controversy grew Tuesday, McGuinty’s office released a statement commenting on the deadly 1984 riots — the worst since India’s independence in 1947— saying, “I know many of our fellow Ontarians still feel the pain of these events very deeply, and I want to convey our sympathies.”

However, officials for McGuinty said human rights issues were not raised at the meeting with Nath, where trade was the main topic.

Given his large contingent of South Asian MPPs and having been to India twice, McGuinty should be more plugged in to the concerns surrounding people he’s meeting from that region, said NDP leader Andrea Horwath.

“I think it’s insensitive in the extreme that the premier would be entertaining Mr. Nath, a person who is obviously a very polarizing, very divisive figure,” she said.

Nath has refuted claims that he led any mob.

He told a commission in India in 2000 that he arrived at the scene of a riot in New Delhi after learning of escalating violence but he claims to have left when police arrived.

The commission indicted Nath but could not determine whether he was involved.

On Tuesday, he told the Star: “I have never been indicted by any commission of inquiry, nor have I been charged in a police station or before a court of law for any offence relating to violence against the members of the Sikh community.”

He said some years ago, “a complaint made by a person of dubious motivation was, nevertheless, examined by the Nanavati Commission, which found it baseless. The commission held that there was no evidence whatsoever that I had, in any manner, instigated any mob or was ever involved in any attack on any gurdwara.”

Nath said he has consistently condemned violence that erupted after Gandhi’s assassination.

“I am surprised and appalled by this protest because I have been coming here for 20 years and nobody ever complained,” said Nath.

Sikhs acknowledge that but say his visits have been deliberately kept under wraps because they rankle the community.

But a spokeswoman for McGuinty insisted government officials did not go out of their way to keep the meeting with Nath a secret

Meanwhile, a Sikh lawyer said Canada has violated constitutional law by allowing Nath entry into Canada even though he is accused of human rights violations.

“The constitution bars anyone involved in human-rights abuses, even if they have not been formally charged or convicted,” said Gurpatwant Pannu, a lawyer for Sikhs for Justice, an advocacy group.

He said he will challenge his admission in the federal court on Wednesday. “He (Nath) is here now but we want to make sure that he never comes to Canada again.”

With files from Haroon Siddiqui

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