Trudeau's visit not just about 'Kurtas' and 'Khalistan'
During Canadian PM Justin Trudeau’s visit the focus of large sections of the media was on two K’s –Trudeau’s colourful ‘Kurtas’ or ‘Khalistan’. In the process of raising concerns over the activities of Sikh separatist groups operating from Canada, both New Delhi and Chandigarh annoyed not just the ‘hardliners’, but those who have never advocated the separatist cause. The India-Canada relationship was restricted to just one issue ‘Khalistan’ which has virtually no traction in Punjab, and has limited support in Canada.
Looking beyond Punjab and Sikh related issues, as a student of foreign policy, I was also surprised by a few other points.
First, we have been speaking about the relevance of Indian ‘Soft Power’ in Indian Foreign Policy in recent years, then why did some journalists have so many objections to Trudeau’s ‘Bhangra’ moves. Isn’t ‘Bhangra’ and ‘Dhol’ part of India’s soft power? Would there have been problems with Trudeau having done the Dandiya/Garba or any other dance?
Second, there is a large Indian Diaspora, within which, of course, the Punjabi Diaspora is dominant, so why was Trudeau’s outreach to Punjabis in general, and Sikhs in particular such a problem. Some social media commentators and media personalities even went to the extent of mocking Trudeaus for doing Langar Sewa at Golden Temple, Amritsar. Shouldn’t Trudeau’s visit to Golden Temple have been welcomed by the national media as well?
Some analysts made the point that Trudeau needed to reach out to all groups. The US President Donald Trump has also reached out to a few groups more than others, with a focus on Right Wing Hindu groups. At a Florida thanks giving event, Trump said: “We have a lot of people here tonight from the Indian community, Hindus. We did great with the Hindus.”
Those who are harping on Trudeau’s outreach towards Punjabis and Sikhs, conveniently forget the fact that Canada’s High Commissioner to India, Nadir Patel, hails from Gujarat, the home state of the Prime Minister.
Third, while the current government has encouraged participation of state governments in foreign policy in terms of giving a fillip to people to people contact and economic ties. In Mumbai, Trudeau met with Bollywood stars and businessmen as well as the Maharashtra Chief Minister, Devendra Fadnavis. During Punjab Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh’s meeting with Trudeau, he handed over a list of 9 operatives functioning in Canada who are ‘allegedly’ involved in targeted killings in Punjab. But given the fact that on most foreign policy issues, it is the Center which clearly runs the show, shouldn’t MEA or the Ministry of Home Affairs have handed over this list?
Doesn’t this set a wrong precedent in terms of what role states should play in foreign policy? In future, other state governments too will seek to involve themselves in security issues. It remains to be seen, if in future Captain Amarinder is given freedom to handle issues like cultural and sports exchanges with Pakistani Punjab in a similar manner.
Fourth, it is also time, that we have a clear policy towards participation of NRI's in Indian politics and not target one set of NRI's for associating with a political outfit.
Interestingly, Captain Amarinder who in his new ‘avatar’ has positioned himself very differently from his earlier tenure, did not really raise other issues which are of interest to the state, and perhaps forgot the fact that the state has a large diaspora. In fact in TV interviews, the Captain said ‘Khalistan is the main issue’. Like other state governments Captain should have sought to harness the Punjabi diaspora effectively, he could have emulated CM’s like Chandrababu Naidu of Andhra Pradesh. Other states have been reaching out externally not just with the objective of drawing foreign direct investment, but enhancing linkages in areas like education, health and sports.
In conclusion, there were some fundamental problems not just with the media narrative, but also in the handling of the visit both by the central and state governments. The cold shoulder to Trudeau and the excessive impact on ‘security issues’ while obliterating interests of the Sikh community and Punjab, has hurt not just Punjabis in Canada, but Punjabis in other parts of the world as well. The Government of India needs to engage equally pro-actively with all sections of the diaspora, and realize that diaspora from all states is equally important.
It is also a perfect instance of how, a bilateral relationship should not be driven by one issue. It is a pity, that a visit which could have been a game changer for Punjab, was hijacked by one issue, while there are far more grave threats to the state including drugs and unemployment. Though to be fair to Captain Amarinder Singh, he did help the TRP’s of TV Channels, while also giving so called ‘Old Punjab hands’ the opportunity to promote their ridiculous conspiracy theories.
March 3, 2018
Tridivesh Singh Maini is New Delhi-based Foreign Policy Analyst.
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