NEW DELHI: Justin Trudeau’s state visit to India has been overshadowed by revelations that a businessman convicted of trying to assassinate an Indian minister in the 1980s was invited to several official events.
The week-long tour of the subcontinent has been dogged by suggestions the Canadian prime minister is being snubbed by his Indian counterpart, Narendra Modi, over Canada’s alleged indulgence of Sikh separatists aiming to create an independent state within India for the religious minority.
The Canadian high commission in Delhi confirmed on Thursday it had sent, and has now rescinded, an official dinner invitation to Jaspal Atwal, a former member of a Sikh organisation regarded by India as a terrorist group.
Atwal was convicted in 1986 of trying to kill Malkiat Singh Sidhu, then a minister in the Punjab government, who was on holiday in Canada at the time. Sidhu survived the attempt but was later assassinated in India.
Photos were circulated on Thursday showing Atwal posing with Trudeau’s wife, Sophie Grégoire Trudeau, at an event in Mumbai earlier this week.
Trudeau told journalists he took the matter very seriously. “The individual in question should have never received an invitation,” he told reporters in Delhi. “The person and department responsible will take full responsibility for his actions.”
His office clarified Atwal was not part of Trudeau’s official delegation. A Canadian MP, Randeep Surai, admitted organising the invitation. “I should have exercised better judgment, and I take full responsibility for my actions,” he said in a statement.
On Wednesday, Trudeau met Amarinder Singh, the chief minister of Punjab state, which was the centre of decades of violent clashes, bombings and assassinations between Sikh separatists and the Indian state.
About 80,000 people are estimated to have died in the conflict, including the former Indian prime minister, Indira Gandhi, who was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguard after ordering Indian troops into Amritsar’s Golden Temple, one of Sikhism’s most revered spiritual sites.
The campaign was crushed in India by 1993 but its embers have been fanned by Sikh diasporas, especially in Canada, where Punjabi migrants and their descendants have become a rich voting block. About 1.4 million Canadians claim Indian descent.
Trudeau has previously boasted that his cabinet has more Sikhs than Modi’s and Canadian Sikh activists have succeeded in passing bills in provincial legislatures describing the anti-Sikh riots that followed Gandhi’s assassination as a “genocide” – terminology India balks at.
In past months, dozens of Sikh temples in Canada have banned Indian officials from visiting in their official capacity.