Amarinder remarks on Canadian ministers sparks row

Punjab Chief Minister Capt. Amarinder Singh.   | Photo Credit: Akhilesh Kumar

Terming Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh’s remarks against its Defence Minister Harjit Singh Sajjan both “disappointing and inaccurate”, Canada on Thursday rejected the allegation that Mr. Sajjan and three cabinet colleagues were supporters of Sikh separatist groups, or “Khalistanis”.

“We regret that the Chief Minister of Punjab is unavailable to meet with Canada's Minister of Defence. The comments regarding Canada’s Ministers are both disappointing and inaccurate,” the Canadian High Commission in Delhi said in a statement about Captain Amarinder’s comments that have set off a political and diplomatic storm in India ahead of Mr. Sajjan’s visit from April 17-23.

Opposition critical

In Punjab, opposition leaders from the Aam Admi Party and Akali Dal criticised the Chief Minister for the comments.

“It is unfortunate that Capt. Amarinder has not only insulted the Canadian Defence Minister, but entire Punjabis in general and Sikhs in particular, who have already proved their mettle on foreign land not only in business but in political arena as well,” said senior AAP leader and MLA Sukhpal Singh Khaira.

“Capt. Amarinder should have refrained from making disparaging remarks against Mr. Sajjan as well as all other Punjabi representatives in the Canadian parliament,” said former Punjab Deputy chief minister and Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) president Sukhbir Singh Badal.

Speaking to the private news channel NDTV on Wednesday, Capt. Amarinder Singh had said he would depute a minister to receive Mr. Sajjan when the latter Punjab as he and other members of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s cabinet of Sikh origin were “Khalistani sympathisers”.

Separatist sympathies

“It’s a matter of principle,” Capt. Amarinder Singh had said, referring to a principle of “zero tolerance” for terrorism. “There are [four] ministers there who are Khalistanis. And I am not interested in meeting Khalistanis.”

The Chief Minister was referring to allegations against Mr. Sajjan, whose father was a board member of the radical World Sikh Organisation in Canada. In 2011, Mr. Sajjan, a decorated police officer who has served in Afghanistan and Bosnia and commanded the British Columbia regiment of reserves, had been severely criticised for reportedly attending a “remembrance” ceremony in Surrey that included pictures of Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, and other Khalistani militants, according to local newspapers. When asked, Mr. Sajjan admitted to attending the ceremony, but had called the photographs of Sikh terrorists “inappropriate”, and has consistently denied being a supporter of Khalistan.

Capt. Amarinder Singh meanwhile, rejected Canada’s defence of Mr. Sajjan, saying that he stood by his principled stand of not associating himself with any 'Khalistani sympathizer.'

Even as he lashed out at critics, within India, of his 'Khalistani sympathizer' remarks against the Canadian Defence Minister, Capt. Amarinder reiterated that Mr. Sajjan, and several other ministers and top leaders in Canada, were sympathizing with those indulging in anti-India activities, notwithstanding Canada’s claims to the contrary.

“As a democratic nation, India believed in the freedom of speech, which was enshrined in the Constitution, but he would personally not meet any Khalistani sympathizers,” he said in a statement.

MEA silent

The MEA refused to comment on Capt. Amarinder Singh’s refusal to meet Mr. Sajjan, as well as the Canadian High Commission’s reply. “It is up to the CM to decide who he wants to meet,” said an official, distancing himself from the controversy. In April 2016, Capt. Amarinder Singh was forced to cancel his seven-day tour of Canada after Sikh rights groups protested against planned political rallies, and went to court on a case accusing him of abetting torture during his previous tenure as Chief Minister. “The Chief Minister is welcome to visit Canada,” the High Commission said on Thursday in response to Capt. Amarinder Singh’s allegation that Khalistani groups had stopped his visit.

The controversy comes on the heels of another related controversy last week, when the MEA protested the Ontario assembly’s approval of a motion (34-5) — moved by a member of the ruling Liberal party — that termed events in 1984 (Operation Bluestar and the Anti-Sikh riots) a “genocide perpetrated against the Sikhs throughout India”. In a statement the MEA spokesperson had called the motion “misguided”.

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Printable version | Jun 23, 2021 7:49:18 PM |

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