In a major public relations embarrassment for visiting Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, a Canada-based Khalistani activist, convicted in the attempted murder of a Punjab Minister in 1986, was invited to two events organised for Trudeau, in Mumbai and Delhi.
As photographs of the Mumbai reception on Tuesday, showing Trudeau’s wife, Sophie Gregoire Trudeau, and a Canadian minister with Jaspal Atwal, a known Khalistani activist, kicked up a row, the Canadian High Commission in New Delhi said it had rescinded the invitation to the reception in the Capital on Thursday night.
Atwal, a former member of the International Sikh Youth Federation (ISYF) — a pro-Khalistani outfit that was banned in Canada and designated a terrorist organisation in 2003 — was convicted of attempted murder after then Punjab minister Malkiat Singh Sidhu was shot on Vancouver Island in 1986. Atwal and three others were sentenced to 20 years in jail, but he was released early due to his good conduct.
Read | Who is Jaspal Atwal?
Responding to the controversy, Trudeau said Atwal should not have received an invitation. “Obviously, we take this extremely seriously. He should never have received an invitation. As soon as we received the information, we rescinded it. A member of Parliament had included this individual,” he said.
The Ministry of External Affairs said it did not know how Atwal was granted a visa. “There are two aspects to it, presence and visa. The Canadian side has already clarified that the invitation has been withdrawn. About the visa, I don’t know how it happened. We will ascertain information from our Commission,” said Raveesh Kumar, MEA’s official spokesperson.
The Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) said Atwal’s name had been removed from its “blacklist” of Sikh extremists. Sources told The Indian Express that his name was dropped as part of the government’s effort to engage with “reformed” and “moderate” elements in pro-Khalistan sections in the Sikh community across the world.
Officials said his name was dropped ahead of the Punjab elections in 2016, when an MHA committee, headed by an additional secretary, reviewed the list and removed the names of nearly 300 Sikh NRIs and their families.
Meanwhle, a PTI report from Toronto quoted Atwal as saying that it was unfair to raise his “criminal conviction” for a shooting incident in 1986. He said he had travelled to India on his own on February 11, and was not part of any official government delegation.
While Trudeau has spoken out in favour of a “united India” — in private as well as in public, most recently in Mumbai earlier this week — Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland said on Thursday, “We are familiar with separatist challenges at home, Canada supports a strong and united India.”
Trudeau’s Liberal Party-ruled Canadian government has been perceived to be reaching out to pro-Khalistan sections of the Sikh community in Canada. But during his meeting with Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh on Wednesday, Trudeau is understood to have assured that Canada does not support any separatist movement in India or elsewhere.