India’s chief minister of Punjab is accusing Canadian Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan of being a supporter of a Sikh separatist organization that has used terrorism to advance its political agenda. Amarinder Singh called Sajjan a “Khalistani,” a term widely identfied with Sikh terrorism. He made the accusation on Indian TV in advance of the defence minister’s visit to India this week.
In an interview, Singh was discussing his being prevented from speaking at political rallies in Canada before he labelled Sajjan, as well as other Sikh members of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s cabinet, “Khalistanis”: a term used to describe Sikhs who advocate — through political and sometimes violent means — the establishment of an independent Sikh homeland in the Punjab region of India.
“I’m not going to meet him,” Singh said. “There are five ministers who are Khalistanis and I am not interested in meeting any Khalistanis.”
Indian police have arrested members of the violent Khalistani groups that operate in the Punjab but they maintain that the lifeblood of these organizations comes from wealthy Sikh sympathizers in the West, including Canada and the U.S.
Sajjan’s spokeswoman Renee Filiatrault did not comment directly on the accusations in a Tuesday email, saying only that Sajjan’s trip was a celebration of the bonds between Canada and India, both members of the British Commonwealth.
“Minister Sajjan is a proud Canadian, with a lifetime of service to Canada. He is not scheduled to meet with any representatives from the Punjab government.”
Sikh groups in Canada and India have condemned Singh’s comment for its undiplomatic tone, suggesting the Punjabi politician was raising the issue to avoid discussing Punjab’s bread and butter issues.
Gurpatwant Pannun, senior counsel for the Toronto-based Sikhs for Justice, says Singh was not allowed to speak at political rallies when he was in Canada in 2016: something that he Pannun raised with the Liberal government.
Indian media are reporting that the Canadian government did not want Singh to attend or address Sikh rallies while he was in Canada but it not clear with whom that order originated.
Sajjan was born in the Punjab region of India before coming to Canada with his parents at the age of five. His political career has been dogged by accusations that he has been a member of the World Sikh Organization (WSO), which advocates the formation of an independent Khalistan. Sajjan has routinely denied membership in the WSO or working towards Sikh separatism.
Trudeau has four Sikh ministers in his cabinet. Serving with Sajjan are Innovation Minister Navdeep Bains, House Leader Bardish Chagger and Infrastructure Minister Amarjeet Sohi. Sajjan was a lieutenant-colonel in the Canadian Army before becoming defense minister and experienced combat in Afghanistan.
Follow David on Twitter