Justin Trudeau has charmed the Indian diaspora. He wears the mundu veshti for a Pongal performance, a silk kurta pyjama for a visit to the Swaminayaran Temple in Toronto and sits cross-legged with eastern ease at gurdwaras. He has four Indian-origin ministers in his cabinet, and once remarked that he had more Sikh ministers than Narendra Modi. A love for the diaspora, however, doesn’t always ensure a roses-and-hearts romance with India. As Trudeau embarks on his maiden state visit to India, the cloud of the Sikh nationalist movement lingers overhead.
Canadian defence minister Harjit Singh Sajjan and fellow Sikh minister Amarjit Sohi recently stated they neither sympathise with, nor espouse, the Sikh nationalist movement, which is bent on creating a separate country called Khalistan in India’s Punjab region. The statement came following reports that there were sympathisers of the cause in the Canadian government. Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh had refused to meet Sajjan last year, when he visited Punjab, but after the recent statement, he is willing to host Trudeau.
While observers do not anticipate protests to mar Trudeau’s five-day visit, they say the issue will figure in bilateral talks. “We have been talking about this at every level, consistently, to the Canadian side, but, unfortunately, there has been no change,’’ said India’s former high commissioner to Canada, Vishnu Prakash. “It is the only shadow on a relationship that has so many positives. The issue is serious, it impacts the integrity of India.’’
Pramod Kumar, director of the Chandigarh-based think tank Institute for Development and Communication, said that the political leadership in Canada understood only an exclusive Sikh club, and they did not understand the multicultural and secular fabric of Punjab. Trudeau’s visit is an opportunity to showcase these elements.
Indo-Canadian ties have had their hiccups. While the Khalistan issue is still a talking point, the two have ironed out the mistrust developed after Pokhran I, when Canada stopped supplying uranium to India. Much diplomacy, the US-India civil nuclear deal and a similar one with Canada have ensured all is well at the nuclear level. “Canada is a leading supplier of uranium to us now,’’ said Prakash.
Canada is also emerging as a viable alternative for Indians who fear the new visa regimes in the US. “In just over a year, between 2016 to 2017, the number of students to Canada went up from 50,000 to 1.25 lakh. The fees are lower (than the UK and US), and Canada offers three-year work visas after the course to help clear off the loan,’’ said Prakash.
There are 10.25 lakh Persons of Indian Origin (PIO) in Canada, making up 3.6 per cent of its population. While Sikhs comprise 4.5 lakh of this number, in recent years, the disapora mix has got more varied.
Trudeau’s five-day tour to New Delhi, Amritsar, Amhedabad, Mumbai and Agra is reflective of the diverse areas in which the bilateral relationship has moved. And, though the noise is over the separatist movement, the top topics of discussion are trade and investment. He is accompanied by a strong business delegation.
The two countries are keen to sign a free trade agreement that will include the foreign investment promotion and protection agreement, which Canada is keen on. India is more concerned about the comprehensive economic partnership agreement and on exporting its tropical produce. For this, rules have to be eased by the Canadian food safety authority to clear the Indian produce. Trade between the two countries stood at $6 billion in 2016-17, and had dipped by 1 per cent from the previous year. Indian hosiery, gemstones and chemicals form a part of the export inventory. Canadian supplies include uranium, paper pulp, edible oils and machinery.
The bilateral ties have been given a personal touch, with the good rapport that Modi and Trudeau share. Modi visited Canada in 2015, the first visit by an Indian PM in four decades. Trudeau’s Agra visit surely indicates that he and wife Sophie are planning a picture on the bench at the Taj Mahal.