New Delhi: With his visit already clouded over the issue of support to Khalistanis, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau faced a huge embarrassment on Thursday when a convicted Khalistan separatist Jaspal Atwal was invited to a reception being hosted by his country’s High Commission here in his honour, also triggering a probe in India as to how Atwal was given a visa.
Following the row, the invitation to Atwal, who was convicted in Canada for the attempted assassination of a Punjab minister in 1986, was rescinded by the High Commission.
Trudeau, who has apparently been cold shouldered by the Indian government ever since his arrival on Saturday, faced questions from the media on the issue. The matter was being taken “extremely seriously” and Atwal should never have received an invitation, he told the media on the sidelines of a business event.
“As soon as we received the information, we rescinded it. A Member of Parliament (from Canada) had included this individual (in the delegation’s list),” Trudeau said.
Maintaining that both countries were “committed to pursuing and upholding democracy”, he said that Canada and India were the world’s two largest democracies, one by size and one by population.
India had its own slice of embarrassment on the issue of giving a visa to the controversial Sikh leader, a resident of Canada. A senior External Affairs Ministry official said it was being ascertained how an Indian visa was issued to the individual concerned.
“There are different ways of people coming into India, whether you are an Indian national, whether you hold OCI (Overseas Citizen of India) cards,” External Affairs Ministry spokesperson Raveesh Kumar said at his weekly media briefing here
“So, we are ascertaining details from our mission. We will have to see how this happened,” he said adding they would also go into whether he got an e-visa or otherwise.
The spokesperson said that the fact that an Indian visa was issued to Atwal means that he is not an Indian national and he holds a Canadian passport.
Asked whether there are cases against Atwal in India or whether he will be apprehended while on Indian soil, Kumar said that one has to wait for the law enforcement agencies for this.
Meanwhile, the Union Home Ministry said that Atwal’s name does not figure in the blacklist category maintained by it.
The presence of Atwal in India emerged following reports both in Indian and Canadian media that an invitation was extended to him by the Canadian High Commission for a reception on Thursday night in honour of the visiting dignitary.
“His Excellency Nadir Patel, High Commissioner for Canada to India, is pleased to invite Jaspal Atwal to a dinner-reception celebrating Canada-India ties on the occasion of the visit of The Right Honourable Justin Trudeau, Prime Minister of Canada,” the invitation read.
Soon thereafter, the High Commission issued a statement saying that the invitation to Atwal has been withdrawn.
“The High Commission has rescinded Mr. Atwal’s invitation,” the mission said in a statement.
“We do not comment on matters relating to the PM’s security,” it added.
Canadian Minister for Science and Sports Kirsty Duncan, who is in Trudeau’s delegation, also said that Atwal should never have been invited.
She told the media here that the invitation has now been rescinded and it was being looked into how the matter happened.
Meanwhile, the Toronto Sun, on its website published photographs of Atwal with Trudeau’s wife Sophie Trudeau and Canadian Infrastructure Minister Amarjeet Sodhi.
“The Sun was shown photos of Atwal with Sophie Trudeau, which confirm he is in India with Trudeau’s delegation this week,” the accompanying story said.
It stated that Atwal has also been photographed in India with Indian-origin Brampton South Liberal MP Sonia Sidhu.
Atwal was found guilty of attempting to assassinate then Punjab state minister Malkiat Singh Sidhu in 1986 when he was on a visit to Canada for a family wedding.
Sidhu was driving on a rural road in the small community of Gold River, British Columbia, when his car was ambushed by Sikh extremists. The car’s windows were smashed and Sidhu was shot five times, but survived the assassination attempt.
“Four men, including Jaspal Atwal, were arrested and eventually sentenced to 20 years in prison. The men did not serve jail time, however, because CSIS (Canadian Security Intelligence Service) was found to have obtained evidence through an improperly obtained warrant,” the Sun report said.
It also said that in 2011, Atwal lost a $28,000 decision against the Insurance Corporation of British Columbia in relation to a car fraud ring that included dozens of people.
“Atwal is a partisan activist in British Columbia and previously held a leadership position in Surrey with the Liberal Party of Canada,” the report added.
Atwal is also a former member of the International Sikh Youth Federation (ISYF), a militant group that was banned in Canada and designated a terrorist organisation in 2003.
This incident is the latest amid wide speculation of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his government cold-shouldering Trudeau during his eight-day state visit to India that started on February 17.
The visiting dignitary and his family have visited Agra, Ahmedabad, Mumbai and Amritsar but Modi has not yet issued any welcome statement or tweet.
Modi, who usually tweets during visits by foreign dignitaries, has not so far welcomed him. He also did not accompany Trudeau to Ahmedabad. A meeting with Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh at Amritsar on Wednesday was organised only at the last moment.
While Trudeau made it clear in the meeting that Canada does not support Khalistani separatists, Singh handed over a list of nine Canada-based operatives alleged to have been involved in hate crimes in Punjab by financing and supplying weapons for terrorist activities, and also engaged in trying to radicalise youth and children in the state.
Ties between New Delhi and Ottawa have been frosty in recent times as Canada is being seen as offering a platform to separatists demanding an independent Khalistan.
The visit of Trudeau, who assumed office in November 2015, comes after the visit of Modi to Canada in April that year.
The two leaders are scheduled to hold a bilateral summit here on Friday.