NEW DELHI/TORONTO: India on Thursday cautioned the governments of Australia, Canada and the UK that the activities of Khalistani elements and violent extremists on their territory could impact bilateral relations and have security implications for these countries.
External affairs minister S Jaishankar laid out the Indian government’s position four days after a float depicting the assassination of former prime minister Indira Gandhi was part of an event organised by pro-Khalistan elements in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) of Canada.
The float depicted the assassination as “revenge” for Operation Bluestar, the military action ordered by Gandhi in 1984 to flush out separatist leader Jarnail Singh Bhindrawale and his supporters from the Golden Temple in Amritsar.
It sparked anger and outrage in India.
Jaishankar told a special media briefing on India’s foreign policy during nine years of the Modi government that the float is linked to the bigger issue of the “space that Canada has continuously” provided to Khalistani elements.
“Frankly…we are at a loss to understand, other than the requirements of vote bank politics, why anybody would do this…I mean, you would imagine that they learn about history and they wouldn’t like to repeat that history,” he said, in an apparent reference to Canada being a key base for Khalistani elements in the past.
“It isn’t only one incident, however egregious it may be. I think there is a larger underlying issue about this space which is given to separatists, to extremists, to people who advocate violence. And I think it’s not good for the relationship and I think it’s not good for Canada.”
Jaishankar’s remarks came after India’s high commission in Ottawa sent a formal note to Canada’s foreign ministry on Wednesday to express displeasure over the float, which had mannequins depicting Gandhi and her killers, two members of her security detail.
He said India’s opposition to activities of Khalistani elements was not limited to Canada, as the Indian side has raised the matter with the UK and Australia. He noted that he had criticised British authorities for lack of protection to the Indian mission in London when “Khalistan supporters took down our flag” during a protest in March and there were “some issues in Australia”.
“Our point is this – they [pro-Khalistan elements] are a very small minority. We do not believe that they represent any significant body of opinion. Our plea to these governments is – look, please understand these are marginal elements, they are extremist elements, they are not good for you, they are not good for us, they are not good for the relationship. It’s not a message limited to Canada,” he said.
Jaishankar also rubbished remarks by Canadian National Security Adviser Jody Thomas listing India among the countries that are the top sources of foreign interference in Canada. He said the Hindi phrase that came to his mind on hearing the comments was “ulta chor kotwal ko daante” (the thief rebukes the policeman).
“If anybody has a complaint, we have a complaint about Canada. What I said earlier – the space they are giving to Khalistanis and to violent extremists. I was very perplexed by what I heard,” he added.
Speaking at a conference organised by the Canadian Global Affairs Institute in Ottawa on Friday, Thomas said, “When I talk about foreign interference and economic security, I’m now talking about a number of state actors and non-state proxies. This includes Russia, Iran, India. That said, the actor that comes up most on these issues, and it’s no surprise to anybody, is China.”
The “shaheedi” float was part of a parade held to mark the 39th anniversary of Operation Bluestar, and it had a sign that said the assassination was “Revenge for Attack on Shri Darbar Sahib”, referencing the storming of the Golden Temple.
A senior Indian official described the occurrence as “not acceptable”, and said, “You cannot exceed freedom of expression like this, glorifying the assassination of the leader of a democratic nation.”
Canada’s high commissioner in New Delhi Cameron Mackay also denounced the float. He tweeted, “I am appalled by reports of an event in Canada that celebrated the assassination of late Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. There is no place in Canada for hate or for the glorification of violence. I categorically condemn these activities.”
The float and the parade are linked to organisations based in Brampton city in Greater Toronto Area, for long seen as a hotbed for Khalistani elements. More than the UK and Australia, the activities of these elements in Canada have emerged as a major irritant in relations with India. Indian officials have, over the years, also highlighted the links between Khalistani elements in Toronto with the Pakistani mission in Canada.
A senior Indian official noted that developments such as Thomas placing India among authoritarian states will lead to Ottawa frittering away positive momentum developed in bilateral ties, particularly with a productive visit by commerce minister Piyush Goyal last month.
Thomas’s comments have been criticised by the Indo-Canadian community. The National Alliance of Indo-Canadians tweeted: “Indo-Canadians are politically marginalized and face racism and religious bigotry in daily life. Genuine grievances and concerns of citizens must not be mixed up with foreign interference.”
In the context of the float, senior Brampton-based journalist Balraj Deol tweeted: “Does it help Canada’s ‘Indo-Pacific strategy’? A float depicting murder of late Indian PM by her Sikh bodyguards being part of about 5 KM long parade in city of Brampton on June 4th. Jody Thomas may reflect on it!”