Captain Amarinder Singh shot himself in the foot by letting personal pique get in the way of his duties as Punjab Chief Minister by refusing to meet Canadian Defence Minister and fellow Sikh Harjit Singh Sajjan. The Akalis too were not too gaga over the visit but gave Sajjan due honour to send out a message to the Punjabi diaspora that they would always own one of their own. Sajjan himself behaved with utmost dignity making it clear that he was on a bilateral visit and represented Canada and not the Punjabi diaspora. He also tried to reach out to the Punjab government but met with a stone wall. He, however, made Punjabis realise their loss by calling on the Haryana Chief Minister, whose residence abuts that of the Punjab CM in Chandigarh, where he was welcomed with open arms and solicited for business.
Lots more happened behind the scenes from the first day when Amarinder let off the bombshell that he would not meet Harjit Sajjan or any other Punjabi origin MP of Canada because they supported radicals and espoused the cause of Khalistan. The Punjab CM tried to sell this narrative in the aftermath of a resolution passed by the Ontario legislature which condemned India for his human rights violations including the 1984 anti-Sikh riots which it termed as genocide. Sajjan had nothing to do with the resolution though it was moved by his fellow Liberal party MP Harinder Malhi.
While political observers were puzzled as to why a chief minister of Punjab would try to brush a visiting Defence minister of Canada as a Khalistani and lose an opportunity to reach out to Canadian investors, those who know Amarinder were’nt surprised. The root of the problem lies in Amarinder’s proposed visit to Canada in April 2016. Hardliners, including the Sikhs for Justice, petitioned the Canadian government and pointed out that there was a clause forbidding foreign nationals from indulging in election campaigning on Canadian soil. Subsequently the Canadian government did not give Amarinder’s team permission to hold any meeting forcing him to cancel his visit to the country.
Amarinder felt bitter and even wrote a protest letter to Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. It did not help that Akalis and leaders of AAP had toured Canada earlier and did their bit to further the cause of their parties.
So in light of this Amarinder’s refusal to meet Sajjan is being seen as a tit for tat. He stuck to his stand despite widespread approbation. The Punjab Congress tried its best to back its CM by claiming that Sajjan’s father was associated with World Sikh Organisation (WSO), one of the organisation which is accused of adopting a hardline stance on human rights violations in Punjab. There were also statements that many Liberal supporters had left the party because it espoused the cause of the Sikh hardliners.
Setting record straight
However all this did not cut much ice because Sajjan refused to join the debate. He maintained he was in India as Defence Minister of Canada. He, however, did make it clear for the record that he did not promote breaking up of any country. Clearly stating that he did not want to get into petty politics, he upped the bar by stating that he had come to Punjab only to pay respect at the holiest of the Sikh shrines – Harmandir Sahab as well as the village where he was born. This won him widespread empathy among Punjabis.
Sajjan also tried to reach out to Amarinder saying he was open to a meeting with the CM, but the latter’s intransigence put paid to these efforts. The Punjab government did its bit to humiliate Sajjan with a mere sub-divisional magistrate being placed on duty at Amritsar to welcome the Canadian Defence Minister. Sajjan, however, took all this in this stride. He, however, did make the Punjab government realise what it had missed by snubbing him by calling on Haryana Chief Minister Manohar Lal Khattar. The Haryana government has been wooing NRIs assiduously for some time now and Sajjan’s meeting with Khattar is likely to help Haryana get more investment into the State.
The humiliation meted out to Sajjan by the Punjab government will cost the State. The new Congress government has in one stroke wiped out the cordial relationship shared between Punjabi origin ministers of Canada and the Punjab government. It has also put the present government on the warpath with the Liberal Party and the Justin Trudeau government. This move has derailed all proposed bilateral tie-ups and also put a spanner on Canadian investment in Punjab. It could also have a bearing on holding off this year’s NRI Sammelan which is usually held in the winter every year.
Akalis play smarter
As far as the other player in Punjab politics in concerned – the Akalis played smarter. They worked behind the scenes to get Harjit Sajjan appropriately honoured by the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (the body which manages all gurdwaras in Punjab) even though politicians kept away from Sajjan. The Akalis are also not happy at the recent spate of events. Their grouse is different. The SAD-BJP government held a number of NRI Sammelans in the last ten years. It always invited elected representatives of Punjabi origin from Canada and elsewhere to the events and honoured them appropriately. Sikh leaders of Canada were often feted by the government. The SAD feels these leaders, however, did not lift a finger when Akali leaders met with a hostile reception when they went to Canada as part of a party programme two years back. In fact, some Canadian leaders held press conferences to advise Akalis not to indulge in politicking in Canada. This severely undermined the SAD and also gave a perception in Punjab that Punjabi NRIs were not supportive of the party.
This “narazgi” was conveyed to the visiting Defence Minister when he visited the Harmandir Sahab. SGPC president Kirpal Singh Badungar took him aside and conveyed to him that behaviour of Punjabi leaders in Canada was not appropriate. Badungar stressed that Canadian Punjabi leaders should reciprocate the hospitality received by them with cordial social ties when leaders from Punjab visit Canada. The underlying message was that the Akalis were very unhappy at the treatment meted out to their leaders in Canada and that Sajjan and his party colleagues should have stepped forward to ensure they were treated well.
There was a third aspect of Sajjan’s visit also. The Canadian government had planned this visit as a defining moment in bilateral ties between both countries. It planned to take full advantage of Sajjan’s Sikh identity in its engagement with India and Punjab. In this, it failed after India objected to the Ontario resolution. Defence Minister Arun Jaitely also brought up this resolution during this talks with Sajjan rubbing in the fact that this had, in fact, adversely affected Indo – Canadian ties. The fact that Sajjan was not even recognised by the Punjab government which refused to engage him in any manner made the Canadian Consulate in Chandigarh jittery. Sajjan’s visit was being projected as something which would give a fresh impetus to Canada-Punjab ties. The fact that Sajjan did not get his due respect in the land of his birth virtually scuttled the visit and its takeback.
Everyone should seem to be wiser post the event. The Congress government in Punjab will have to rise above personal motives and work to improve ties with its Canadian counterparts, especially elected representatives of Punjabi descent. Branding these representatives as Khalistanis is definitely not the way forward. In fact, it has brought back images the Congress would like to forget, particularly the visit to Dixie gurdwara in Canada where Amarinder addressed a Sikh congregation in the backdrop of Khalistan posters during his earlier stint as Chief Minister. Amarinder’s stance has also alienated him from right thinking Sikhs, all of whom take pride in Sajjan’s achievements and regard him as an icon for the community. Amarinder has also alienated the NRI community with this step and its after-effects are likely to be felt in the Doaba region in the State where NRIs dominate the political discourse. Amarinder’s managers are claiming he has exorcised the Khalistan episode linked with him with this act and that it has gone well amongst the Hindu community in the State.
Treating NRIs as equals
The Akalis have benefitted from Amarinder’s mistake. They not only got Sajjan honoured by the SGPC but also made their gurdwara management head do some plain speak with him. However, in case they are to build on this momentum they will have to try to get Punjabi origin Liberal Party leaders on their side by focussing on community relations. The party could also do well to approach the NRI community with humility and rebuild bridges based on mutual trust rather than following the old feudal relationship of arrogance and patronage.
The Liberal government should also learn from this fiasco. It is amply clear that the Canadian Consulate in Chandigarh completely failed to read the political atmosphere. The Consulate could have easily warned the Liberal government about Amarinder’s state of mind which was no secret. It could have also paved the way to a successful visit in case it had cleared the air with Amarinder prior to the visit. The Liberal government also failed on its part to understand the seriousness of the Ontario resolution. The party could have easily delinked the issue of human rights violations in India with human rights violations during the 1984 anti- Sikh riots. It would also do well to distance itself from Sikh hardliners. The excesses of 1984 can never be forgotten but the mainstream Sikh community has moved on.
Even as all this is unfolding, the governments in India and Canada must realise the aspirations of its peoples. The people-to-people movement between Punjabis in both countries is so overwhelming that governments can ignore it at their own peril only. Leave aside the billions of dollars Canada can invest in a democracy like India, there is a special bond between both countries. The bond is a plural democracy in which all faiths and religions can flourish. Both countries revel in their diversity. This alone could be the starting point for a long and fruitful relationship ahead.