Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s scandal-ridden trip to India may be over, but the controversy surrounding it refuses to go away.
Trudeau has become embroiled in a fresh spat, following his apparent endorsement of allegations that factions within the Indian government had actively sought to undermine his visit to the country last week.
The comments, made during Trudeau’s first parliamentary session since returning to Canada, provoked a swift rebuke from the Indian government, with a spokesman for India’s foreign ministry labeling the suggestion “baseless and unacceptable.”
Trudeau’s week-long India trip, which began on February 17, was marred by a series of poorly-judged missteps and unfortunate headlines, including persistent questions relating to his government’s alleged indulgence of Sikh separatists.
The issue reached a head after it was revealed Jaspal Atwal, a militant Sikh separatist convicted of attempting to murder an Indian politician in Canada, had been invited to at least two Canadian government-linked events, including an official dinner with Trudeau at the Canadian High Commissioner’s residence in New Delhi.
The dinner invitation, which was later withdrawn, sparked outrage in parts of India, where the issue of Sikh separatism remains a highly charged and emotive topic.
On Tuesday, Trudeau faced questions in parliament over reports in the Canadian press, sourced to an unidentified Canadian official, that the government of India had colluded to place Atwal at official events in order to embarrass Trudeau.
In response, Trudeau appeared to offer his support to the claims made in the reports. “When one of our top diplomats and security officials says something to Canadians, it is because they know it to be true.”
“The Government of India, including the security agencies, had nothing to do with the presence of Jaspal Atwal at the event hosted by the Canadian High Commissioner in Mumbai or the invitation issued to him for the Canadian High Commissioner’s reception in New Delhi. Any suggestion to the contrary is baseless and unacceptable,” said India’s Ministry of External Affairs in a press statement released Wednesday.
Canadian lawmaker and member of Trudeau’s ruling Liberal Party, Randeep S. Sarai, had previously claimed responsibility for Atwal’s official invitation. “I want to again apologize for my role in recent unfortunate events. Moving forward, I will be exercising better judgment,” he said in a tweet posted Wednesday.
It remains unclear how Atwal, a known militant who in 1987 was sentenced to 20 years in a Canadian court for his part in the attempted murder of a visiting Indian state minister, managed to obtain a visa to enter into India.
Atwal was one of four men who ambushed and shot Malkiat Singh Sidhu, a then-member of Punjab’s cabinet, who was visiting Canada for a relative’s wedding, badly wounding him.
In the sentencing, the judge called the crime “an act of terrorism in order to advance a cause.”
Canada is home to about 468,000 Sikhs, comprising 1.4% of its population. A small but influential number of those Sikhs support the idea of Khalistan, or the demand for a separate state for Indian Sikhs.
The separatist issue goes back decades in India, with one of the most important clashes occurring in 1984 when Indian Army soldiers stormed the Golden Temple in Amritsar, Sikhs’ holiest site, in an effort to capture separatist leaders.
In retaliation, India’s then-leader, Indira Gandhi, was assassinated by her two Sikh bodyguards. According to official figures, the resulting anti-Sikh riots saw 2,733 people killed in the Indian capital alone. Human rights activists say the death toll was significantly higher.
In 1985, the violence spilled over into Canada, when Sikh separatists bombed an Air India plane that had taken off from Toronto airport, killing all 329 people aboard, including numerous Canadians of Indian descent. The only person who was convicted in the bombing was released in 2017 by Canadian courts after two decades in jail.
An armed Sikh rebellion operated in Punjab, the heartland of the faith, from the 1980s to the early 1990s, when it was crushed. Today, pockets of support remain in parts of the Sikh diaspora, including in Canada.
Trudeau has actively courted the Sikh vote, previously proclaiming that his cabinet has more Sikhs than Modi’s. Analysts say a particular area of contention during Trudeau’s India visit, was his appearance at a Sikh event in Toronto last year, where separatist flags and posters depicting an extremist Sikh leader killed in the 1984 Indian Army operation were displayed.