Canada rescinds invitation to militant to dine with PM Trudeau in India

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau with his wife Sophie Gregoire Trudeau, daughter Ella-Grace and son Xavier at the Sikh Golden Temple in Amritsar on Feb 21, 2018.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau with his wife Sophie Gregoire Trudeau, daughter Ella-Grace and son Xavier at the Sikh Golden Temple in Amritsar on Feb 21, 2018.PHOTO: AFP

NEW DELHI (AFP, REUTERS) - Canadian officials on Thursday (Feb 22) admitted a Sikh extremist convicted of attempting to murder an Indian minister had been invited to dinner with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in New Delhi, in the latest controversy to dog the premier's week-long visit to India.

A statement confirming Jaspal Atwal's invitation to Thursday's official event had been cancelled comes less than a day after Mr Trudeau sought to quash perceptions his administration was soft on Sikh extremists.

"The High Commission has rescinded Mr Atwal's invitation," the Canadian High Commission in New Delhi told AFP in the statement on Thursday.

Mr Atwal was convicted for a botched assassination attempt on an Indian minister in Canada in 1986, and was sentenced to 20 years by a Canadian court.

He reportedly attended an event in Mumbai on Tuesday, where he was photographed alongside Mr Trudeau's wife Sophie Gregoire, according to Canada's public broadcaster CBC.

The commission would not comment on whether Mr Atwal was part of Mr Trudeau's official delegation, although reports in Canada said Trudeau's office had denied this.

"We do not comment on matters relating to the PM's security," the high commission in New Delhi stated.

Mr Atwal was a member of the International Sikh Youth Federation, an organisation outlawed in India and Canada, among other places, that seeks an independent Sikh state of Khalistan.

Canada is home to roughly half a million Sikhs and Mr Trudeau's administration has been accused of being too cosy with those agitating for a separate homeland in India's northern Punjab state.

Mr Trudeau particularly riled New Delhi last year when he attended a parade in Canada at which Sikh militants were feted as heroes.

Tensions over the Khalistan issue have marred Mr Trudeau's visit, and fuelled speculation the prime minister was being snubbed by his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi.

Mr Modi has been notably absent since Mr Trudeau and his family touched down in India on Saturday evening.

Government officials greeted the Trudeaus at the Taj Mahal and in Mr Modi's home state of Gujarat, where Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was last month personally escorted by the Indian leader.

Mr Trudeau on Wednesday sought to dispel perceptions his administration was too close to Sikh separatists, telling Punjab's chief minister Canada did not sympathise with extremist movements.

A state official said on Thursday that India has handed Canada a list of nine people in Canada who are suspected of trying to revive a Sikh separatist movement in Punjab.

An aide to Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh said the list of suspects was handed to the Canadian side during the meeting with Mr Trudeau. "The information has been shared with them. These are part of ongoing investigations," Mr Singh's media adviser, Raveen Thukral, told Reuters.

But photographs of Mr Atwal flanked by Canadian officials at the Mumbai event attended by Mr Trudeau have thrust the controversy back into the headlines.

Mr Modi and Mr Trudeau are scheduled to meet on Friday in New Delhi at the tail end of his first visit as prime minister to India.