Justin Trudeau is in the midst of another political firestorm during his trip to India after a Sikh separatist convicted of trying to assassinate an Indian cabinet minister was invited to an official reception for the Canadian prime minister.
Jaspal Atwal, a former member of the International Sikh Youth Federation, a banned terrorist group in Canada and India which wants a separate homeland for India’s Sikh minority, was convicted of the attempted assassination, Canadian media outlets reported on Thursday. The attempted killing in 1986 was called an “act of terrorism” by a judge.
Atwal was put on the invitation list by Surrey Centre MP Randeep Sarai who is traveling with Trudeau as part of the Canadian delegation. Sarai has apologized for extending the invitation.
“Invitation to a known terrorist and criminal by the Canadian High Commissioner to receptions hosted on Indian soil in honour of Prime Minister Trudeau is shocking and unprecedented to say the least,” Vishnu Prakash, former Indian High Commissioner to Canada, told VICE News.
Atwal attended an event in Mumbai earlier this week where he was photographed with Sophie Gregoire Trudeau and Canadian Infrastructure Minister Amarjeet Sohi.
"The individual in question never should have received an invitation and as soon as we found out we rescinded the invitation immediately," Trudeau told reporters on Thursday. "Obviously we take this situation extremely seriously."
Outrage over Atwal’s presence has underscored the repeated diplomatic blunders Trudeau and his team have made during the trip.
“I’d said a few days ago that this [visit] was a slow moving train wreck. Well, today, the train well and truly went off the tracks,” Vivek Dehejia, an expert on Indo-Canada relations and a professor at Carleton University, told VICE News.
Throughout his trip to India, the prime minister has been dogged by questions and controversy about his government’s perceived closeness to supporters of Khalistan, a separatist movement advocating for an independent Sikh state.
On Wednesday, Trudeau met with Punjab’s chief minister Amarinder Singh, a staunch opponent of the Khalistan movement, and reportedly reassured him about his government’s commitment on tackling “separatism.” Earlier in the trip, Trudeau also said he supported a “one united India.” Last year, Singh had accused members of Trudeau’s cabinet of being “Khalistanis.”
The Indian government has also faced questions over how Atwal was issued a visa to India in the first place.
“[It] too needs to be seriously looked into and loopholes plugged,” Prakash told VICE News.
A spokesperson for India’s Ministry of External Affairs said they were “trying to find out” how Atwal entered the country.
“I do not know how it happened. We will ascertain information from our [Canadian High] Commission,” Raveesh Kumar told reporters in a press conference.
Indian media also reported that Atwal had been removed from the government’s blacklist of Sikh extremists.
After reports of a cold reception and being “snubbed” by the host country, Trudeau is set to meet Indian prime minister Narendra Modi Friday.
“Modi and Trudeau probably have a pre-arranged agenda, and I suspect the Khalistan issue is one that Modi was going to raise anyway, given what has happened on this trip and before it. But this will certainly lend an extra pungency to that conversation,” Dehejia said.