Why did Modi not receive Justin Trudeau himself with his customary hug?

Published: March 5, 2018

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (R) along with his wife Sophie Gregoire (L) pay their respects at the SSikh Golden Temple in Amritsar on February 21, 2018. PHOTO: AFP

As liberal democracies and countries that don’t have grating disagreements on international affairs, India and Canada should have historically shared a cordial relationship. Since the turn of the century, with India’s ties with the US strengthening and a certain geopolitical convergence emerging, India and Canada had sought to transform their relationship to a strategic partnership.  

However, as Justin Trudeau’s recent visit to India has shown, this relationship has been and continues to be strongly influenced by the Sikh diaspora in Canada.

Reports suggest that the disagreements with the visit began with the planning of the trip itself. While the Indians wanted a short trip focused on the bilateral relationship, Trudeau insisted on a longer visit with his family in tow. Indians wanted him to wrap up business first but Trudeau insisted on sightseeing first. When Trudeau landed in New Delhi, Narendra Modi did not receive him at the airport with his customary hug, which is how he receives guests of importance.

Much has also been said about Trudeau’s sartorial choices with many saying that he came across as facetious. While leaders are allowed a certain leeway in bringing their personal touch to diplomacy, it was widely believed in India that at a time when India had pressing concerns to discuss, Trudeau doing the bhangra seemed like forced euphoria and suggested that he had misread the context.

International media picked up on the responses that Trudeau was getting in India for his gaudy ‘costumes’ that made him look like a caricature, with John Oliver asking what the Modi equivalent in Canada would look like. Social media was equally remorseless.

Seeing as he was attempting to be Roman when in Rome, the criticism that he faced on this account was perhaps a bit churlish. Planning related disagreements are also only minor niggles that cannot entirely scuttle a visit at this level. But all of this only served to compound India’s main gripe that Trudeau is an apologist when it comes to Sikh extremism.

When Canada’s Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan Singh visited India last year, Punjab Chief Minister Captain Amrinder Singh refused to meet him, because according to the CM, Harjit was a Khalistan sympathiser. So when Trudeau visited with Sikh members of his cabinet including Harjit, the question was whether he would meet the chief minister or not. They eventually did meet and Trudeau reiterated his government’s support for a united India. This was an important meeting as it was seen as one that mended fences. So at this point, half way into the week-long visit, despite other issues, the trip seemed to be going as well as it could have, given the circumstances. Trudeau may even have been able to make something of the visit from here and reduce the trust deficit between the two countries to some extent, but that is when someone quite literally photobombed the entire trip and left the Indo-Canadian relationship in shambles.

Jaspal Atwal is a convicted terrorist who attempted to assassinate an Indian minister, Malkiat Singh Sidhu, in Canada in 1986. As photos of Atwal with Trudeau’s wife Sophie and other Canadian ministers at a reception in Mumbai along with an invite for another reception in Delhi started surfacing on social media, all hell broke loose.

The media of both countries demanded an explanation. The Indian media was particularly vociferous given that Trudeau’s perceived lack of sensitivity to India’s point of view on Khalistan had been simmering under the surface all along. With Atwal’s pictures, those perceptions which were suspicions for many until that point, were confirmed. The Indian media was scathing in its criticism of Trudeau and it was clear that the visit had only served to damage Indo-Canada ties and widen the trust deficit instead of addressing it.

How Atwal came to be there and how he received an Indian visa, are questions that are still being debated. The answers to these emerging questions are only further souring the bilateral relationship. A Canadian MP had apologised and had taken ownership for having extended the invitation to him. But then, the Trudeau government, in an attempt to exonerate itself from failing to vet the guest list, made the audacious allegation that Atwal’s presence was an attempt by a section of the Indian establishment to scuttle his visit. India protested strongly, referring to the allegations as “baseless and unacceptable” and has now raised the import duty for chickpeas from Canada from 40% to 60% at a time when Trudeau had lobbied to have it reduced to below 40%.

Clearly the bilateral ties are in a tailspin.

It should not have come to this. While India certainly doesn’t want to see the Khalistan tide rise again, it has every reason to repose enough faith in its own Sikhs to know that Punjab and Indian Sikhs have no secessionist aspirations whatsoever. There is no reason to be insecure on this account and allow that insecurity to affect bilateral ties.

Canada, for its part, must show greater sensitivity towards concerns regarding balkanising forces that flourish on its soil and work towards isolating them. The problem, however, is that bilateral ties are only rarely prioritised over domestic concerns and internal political expediencies. Therefore, it may well require a change in the fundamental circumstances (a conservative government in Canada, perhaps) for the Indo-Canada relationship to recover meaningfully.

Trudeau’s visit is an important caveat and an example of how, in an era of globalisation, even relatively small but influential diaspora populations will influence bilateral ties, especially between developed and developing countries to a greater extent in the time to come.

Ayush Khanna

Ayush Khanna

The author is an Environmental Engineer from Bengaluru, India. He writes on history, economics and socio-political issues. He tweets @AyushyaKhanna (twitter.com/AyushyaKhanna)

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • Rahul

    Khalistan is a dead issue in India. So if the Canada Sikhs want to have some fun raising a few flags, shouting some slogans or calling themselves President of Khalistan, it is like water off India’s back. Justin Trudeau is fond of saying that he has more Sikh’s in his cabinet than Modi’s cabinet, maybe Khalistan, if it happens, will be in Canada. Justin Trudeau’s India visit was about domestic politics and the diaspora votes and never about India so both sides made their points and got a little of what they wanted.Recommend

  • vinsin

    That is true. But Sikhs will never forget that after migrating to India from Pakistan they were thrown out of India between 1950’s-60’s in the name of Muslims appeasement, their lands allocated were snatched and given to Kashmiri Muslims.Recommend

  • gp65

    The patriotism of Indian Sikhs is not under question. IF it were so, Manmohan Singh could not have been a PM for 10 years and Bikram Singh could not have become an army chief. The issue is the insensitivity of Trudeau in inviting a man convicted of attempting to murder an Indian minister to an official function. He also wanted to snub the CM of Punjab by indicating that he was unwilling to meet the CM during his visit to Amritsar – something that Indian government insisted he needed to do.Recommend

  • Kolsat

    Trudeau has shown since he came to power that he is all about show and politically correct statements. Therefore he goes to Sikh festivals and dances there. Also he has to keep his constituents who are a significant number happy. Canadians have made a mistake in giving him a majority.Recommend

  • Yogi Berra

    Still Sikhs voted Congress party to power in Punjab. Go fish.Recommend

  • Yogi Berra

    Trudeau has allowed 1 Million Middle East refugees into Canada. These are economic migrants in reality and very fanatical. This decision of this man will destroy Canada for sure. And when it happens he is even willing to cry in front of the cameras.Recommend

  • Pankaj Srivastava

    Modi did receive him the same way. We all understand what these type of articles running on this portal for sometime is trying to achieve. It won’t work. Recommend

  • Dr. Insaaniyat

    There cant be any rift amongst Indians, things are different now..Other than that Canada needs India more than India needs Canada..Canada is not much relevant to India currently..Recommend

  • Parvez

    To me looked like Trudeau landed up with egg on his face …. mainly due to his own doing.Recommend

  • vinsin

    And what Canada has to do with Sikhism? Canada will give some land to Hindu, will all the Hindus from India move their? You are just a typical Hindu who hate minorities. If tomorrow Indian Muslims demand another partition, you will be the first one to agree.Recommend

  • Striver

    Any evidence to support your claim or do you lie out of habit?
    I know it latter.
    You’re spread hate with your lies.Recommend

  • Striver

    Say what you like. The truth, which you hate to admit, is KHALISTAN movement. Sikhs don’t want to be be part of India and reasons are:
    – Hindus have always betrayed Sikhs
    – Majority of Hindus have always been agasint Sikhs
    – Hindus betrayed Sikhs and helped British army take over Punjab for which Dogra Hindus were awarded Kashmir
    – Sikhs and Muslims fought against the British but not Hindus.
    – Nehru and Gandhi promised Sikhs full rights but after Independence Sikhism was declared part of Hinduism

    QUOTE: “To preserve unity of India, if we have to erdicate 2 kror Sikhs we will do so”: Balram Jhakhar.

    QUOTE: “I don’t give a dam if the Golden Temple and whole of Amritsar are destroyed, I want Bhindranwale dead”. Indra Gandhi.

    QUOTE: “Let us teach these (the Sikhs) a lesson. Rajiv Gandhi

    Do you want more?Recommend

  • Mandeep Cheema

    I am a Canadian Sikh and I don’t support the idea of Khalistan. It is a moot issue even in Canada. It’s only being perpetuated by some frustrated elderly immigrants for financial gains and who have nothing else important to do. Pakistan is also trying to keep this issue alive through their consulates in Toronto and Vancouver mainly The young Indo Canadians aren’t interested in this useless issue. They have other important issues to worry about. I strongly support the unity of India.Recommend

  • Tight Patloon

    Canadian Sikhs especially the new generation who were not born in India and most of them even never visited india also, have so much of hate against India. They have been brainwashed into believing that Sikhs are kind of a separate race from rest of indians. They believe that Sikhs are subjugated and persecuted in India and are discriminated. They live in a different world all togetherRecommend

  • gp65

    The article is about Trudeau’s visit to India, so naturally Indians would respond. How does it prove that Indian Sikhs are disillusioned and want a separate state? Do you know that Manmohan Singh who was PM for 10 years was a Sikh though Sikhs are just 1.5% of Indian population? Can you imagine a Christian or Hindu ever becoming PM in Pakistan?
    Bikram Singh who was Indian COAS until early 2014 was also Sikh. Can you imagine a non-Muslim ever becoming a COAS in Pakistan? The current CM of Punjab and former CM of Punjab are both Sikhs.
    Aam Aadmi Party which was expected to win Punjab elections in 2017 lost them because its leader had links with Canadian Khalistanis. A retired army captain from Congress whose patriotism was never in doubt led Congress to victory in the elections in 2017.Recommend

  • Patwari

    That must be in your imagination. Trudeau’s visit to Hindustan was part
    State visit and part family trip of discovery, as tourists. A mini vacation.
    When you take your two young kids along, and take in the local culture,
    temples, visit all the tourists traps, including wearing desi threads, replete
    with saris and achkans,..then that what it becomes. Did anyone think of that?
    Trusts the Hindustani Darbar of Modi Sarkar, to work overtime, and insert all
    kind of insinuations, palace intrigue and drama.
    A great, vast, beautiful country, with a hate mongering government.
    Nope, Trudeau did not have egg on his face. Not at all. He and his family
    enjoyed themselves.Recommend

  • Patwari

    Trudeau did not refused to meet the CM of Punjab.
    It is the other way around. Capt. Amrinder Singh,
    super patriot, refused to meet Trudeau.
    Common sense will tell you, a visiting foreign dignitary
    like Trudeau, will not do anything so crass as to refuse to
    meet a CM.
    [Capt. Amrinder Singh, CM, and Trudeau did meet]Recommend

  • Striver

    Common sense will tell you my comment is about the treatment of Sikhs in India and Khalistan.
    Common sense will also tell you that Mr Singh would have been put under pressure by the Modi not to meet Trudeau.
    Singh resigned in from Parliament. He opposed Operation Blue Star that lead to the killings of so many innocent Sikhs. Common sense will tell you he is a Sikh first.Recommend

  • Patwari

    “…he is a Sikh first…” that is speculation. On his motives.
    Not concrete.
    By the same token, we can say Sharifs are Punjabis first
    and their province and Punjabis come first before anything,
    or any other ethnicity, in Pakland. [which is actually the truth]Recommend

  • Yogi Berra

    The difference is Canadians (Average IQ of 100) are not as stupid as Indians (Average IQ of 80). They are going to vote out this little Fidel Trudeau in 2019 election. They will correct their mistake.Recommend

  • Striver

    Its not speculation. Sikhs say it themselves. Speculation is saying Sharif is a Punjabi first. He has never said it.
    In trying to deny the truth you lot make up some ridiculous logic.Recommend