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Harper's comments raised questions about whether his party is moving closer to New Delhi on an issue that has long roiled the Indo-Canadian community
Former prime minister Stephen Harper condemned Canadians who promote Sikh separatism and predicted close ties with a controversial Indian government if the Conservatives win back power, underscoring in a recent speech the role south-Asian politics could play in the run-up to October’s election.
Harper criticized those who “bring the battles of the past to Canada” and try to divide India, a rare attack by a Canadian politician on the movement for a separate Sikh homeland.
His comments, earning a standing ovation from a pro-India audience, raised questions about whether his party is moving closer to New Delhi on an issue that has long roiled the Indo-Canadian community.
Or if — as some Sikh leaders argue — the Hindu-nationalist Indian administration is itself trying to create a narrative of communal divide here.
The speech in Toronto last Friday came several months after current Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer enjoyed a markedly warm reception by Modi, and as the Liberal government has faced repeated attacks from India for allegedly being soft on Sikh extremists.
Just a few days following the talk, the Canadian-based group Sikhs for Justice, which advocates for Sikh independence in India, was banned by Modi’s government. The organization has also launched a $2.5-million libel suit against Indian authorities, alleging they’re behind news stories that accuse the group of advocating terrorism.
Underlying all of the developments is the political weight of the one million Canadians of Indian descent, many of whom are concentrated in swing ridings.
Harper spoke after receiving an award from the Canada India Foundation, highlighting a policy he said he followed as prime minister and that “needs” to be continued.
“As a government and as a party, we denounced and we refused all relationship with those Khalistanis and others who seek to bring the battles of the past to Canada, and who seek to divide the great country that is modern India,” he said.
Harper went on to describe what he called the elephant in the room — the current relationship between the two nations “on the Canadian side.” He noted that both the Canadian Conservatives and Modi’s BJP party belong to the International Democratic Union, a coalition of centre-right parties Harper chairs.
“I just want to say I look forward to the day, and I look forward to assisting the honorable Prime Minister Modi and the honorable Prime Minister Scheer in making this once again one of the strongest and most important relationships in the world.”
The comments came as a surprise to Sikh groups, who argued there was a much different tone during Harper’s 2012 visit to India. He told reporters then his government was “completely supportive” of a united India, but defended freedom of expression and the right to peacefully support an independent Khalistan.
“It’s a complete departure,” Balpreet Singh, legal counsel for the World Sikh Organzation, said of the speech. “It really does fly in the face of the same values he defended as prime minister.”
Singh said he also found it “highly disturbing” that Harper was celebrating his party’s links to the BJP, given growing reports of persecution against non-Hindu minorities in India.
Harper’s remarks were also not a factual account, added Jatinder Singh Grewal of Sikhs for Justice, a group spearheading an unofficial referendum on independence in India’s Punjab state next year.
As prime minister, he engaged repeatedly with Sikh leaders who favour Khalistan, and with members of Sikhs for Justice itself, said Grewal.
“He did support us … I met him twice.”
A spokesman for the Conservative caucus could not be reached for comment on whether Scheer endorses Harper’s remarks.
Party sources not authorized to speak on the record said the Tories would likely not go as far as the former leader, but noted the party opposed interfering in the internal politics of another country.
Grewal said he sees little evidence the Conservatives are preparing to take an anti-Khalistan stance on the election trail, though suspects New Delhi is attempting to create the impression parties are lining up on either side.
“We see the Indians trying to create this divide, a false narrative,” he said. “Having this divide within Canadian society is what India is trying to fuel. It’s very dangerous.”
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019