Things were supposed to get better for Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on his week-long trip to India. After days of being given the cold shoulder by the Indian establishment, he finally got a welcoming tweet from Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and was gearing up for formal talks in New Delhi. Instead, news emerged that Jaspal Atwal, a Khalistani separatist convicted in 1986 for trying to kill an Indian minister, had been seen with Trudeau’s entourage and was invited to a dinner at the Canadian high commission.

That invitation has now been rescinded. A Canadian Member of Parliament, one of the 14 who travelled to India with Trudeau, has admitted to inviting Atwal and apologised. The Canadian government has called it an “oversight” with Trudeau saying Atwal should not have received the invitation. Meanwhile, the Indian government is trying to figure out how Atwal managed to get a visa and enter India in the first place.

But the damage has been done. It is clear that Atwal was not some shady element who tried to sneak into the Canadian entourage. A photo showed him with the prime minister’s wife, Sophie Trudeau, and other senior leaders from the Liberal party at a high commission event earlier in the week. And Canadian reporters have pulled up earlier photos of the convicted Khalistani terrorist with Trudeau in the past.

Khalistani terrorist

Atwal is a former member of the International Sikh Youth Federation, a pro-Khalistani group that has been banned in Canada and declared a terrorist organisation. He was convicted of attempted murder after he shot at Indian politician Malkiat Singh Sidhu, who was then a minister in the Punjab Cabinet, while on a visit to Vancouver Island in 1986. Atwal was sentenced to 20 years in prison at the time, but was able to leave on parole after less than six years behind bars.

Ujjal Dosanjh, a former head of the Canadian province of British Columbia, also accuses Atwal of attacking him with an iron bar in 1985 giving him a broken hand and 84 stitches for his head injuries. Atwal was charged with the crime but acquitted. Dosanjh, however, still holds him responsible and has said there is no way senior leaders in the Liberal Party, of which he too is a member, would have not known Atwal.

“Anyone Indo-Canadian in B.C. political circles would know his name and know who he is,” Dosanjh told the National Post, with the B.C. referring to British Columbia.

New Delhi believes Atwal might have managed to get a visa because of the number of lists on the so-called negative list, aimed at keeping out Khalistani separatists, has come down massively in the last few years, as part of an effort to reach out to moderate Punjabis. The government is looking into whether Atwal’s name was one of the 225 that the Punjab government had requested be permitted back into the country. Former high commissioner to Canada Vishnu Prakash told NDTV that the idea was to permit people who only spoke out in favour of Khalistan in the 1980s back into the country and might have moderated since then. But, he added, convicted terrorists should not have been allowed in.

Sikh vote

In some ways, Atwal is just a symptom of why New Delhi has chosen to keep such a distance from Trudeau and his Cabinet. The Canadian prime minister relies heavily on Canadian Sikhs for support, even though in absolute numbers they are only less than 3% of the overall population. Four members of his Cabinet are Sikhs – more than the number in Narendra Modi’s council of ministers, as Trudeau has boasted in the past.

And maybe more distressingly for Trudeau, the New Democratic Party in 2017 chose Jagmeet Singh to lead it, giving Canada its first Sikh political party head. A poll conducted in the aftermath of that development found that seven out of ten Canadians would be okay voting for party led by a Sikh. Others have asked whether Singh can ‘out-Trudeau’ Trudeau himself.

Sikhs have a tangible impact on a number of important federal races in Canadian politics, but they also represent a wealthy, motivated minority. As notes, “although there are twice as many Muslims in Canada as there are Sikhs, there are only two Muslim cabinet ministers in Trudeau’s government” compared to four Sikhs.

The problem for India comes from the fact that the wealth and motivation to be involved in politics from within the Sikh community often includes backing the Khalistani cause.

“I think there’s absolutely no question that there is an influence of separatist politics that in Canada has had quite a predominant role,” Dosanjh, the former premier of British Columbia, told the Hindustan Times last year. “They concentrated on Indian politics and India-related issues, about a Sikh homeland, the 1984 affair. Finally they realised they have enough people and they can actually win nominations.”

Bilateral ties

The emergence of Jagmeet Singh brings concerns for Trudeau that Canadian Sikhs will seek to back a fellow Sikh if he campaigns to become prime minister ahead of elections in the country in 2019. This explains why it was not just India reluctant to reach out to Trudeau’s contingent – the Canadian prime minister was himself not enthusiastic about meeting Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh, who demanded statements decrying the Khalistani movement as a pre-condition for any meeting. In the event, the two did get together in Amritsar, and Trudeau affirmed Canada’s support for a “united India.”

Shortly afterwards, however, the Atwal story broke. And it also emerged that a journalist who had visited as part of Trudeau’s delegation had been photographed in the past holding up a pro-Khalistani placards calling Indian prime minister Narendra Modi a terrorist. It is with this backdrop that Trudeau will walk into a bilateral meeting with Modi on Friday, in the hope that the two countries can ignore the controversies and focus on policy matters, whether it is expanding the relatively small amount of bilateral trade or broadening relations on matters like civil nuclear cooperation, defence and climate change concerns.

Even if the governments are unhappy with each other, the large number of Indians and Indian-origin residents in Canada – and the growing figures of students flocking to that country for education – mean ties will remain close nevertheless. Canadian politicians are already claiming that relations are at “rock bottom” after the Atwal fiasco. On Friday, Trudeau and Modi will have to see if they can at least swim back to the surface.