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Politics Canadian Sikhs aim to question Indian PM Modi about human-rights issues

In this file photograph taken on April 2, 2015, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi gestures as he speaks during the inauguration of a conference on Financial Inclusion in Mumbai. Balpreet Singh, legal counsel for the World Sikh Organization of Canada, said Canada also has “a duty” to raise concerns about human rights and violence against religious minorities during Mr. Modi’s visit.

PUNIT PARANJPE/AFP/Getty Images

Canadian Sikh organizations are hoping to use a highly anticipated visit by Narendra Modi next week to raise questions about the popular Indian Prime Minister's record on human rights and religious freedom.

The World Sikh Organization of Canada sent a briefing to Prime Minister Stephen Harper asking him to discuss attacks against religious minorities in India when he meets with Mr. Modi next week. Another group, called Sikhs for Justice, says it wants Mr. Modi to be prosecuted in Canada for his alleged role in the deadly riots that took place in 2002 in the Indian state of Gujarat.

The groups are voicing their concerns days before Mr. Modi is due to arrive in Canada for the first bilateral visit of an Indian prime minister in more than 40 years. The 64-year-old politician, who gained prominence during his tenure as Gujarat's chief minister, has developed a massive global following since his election last year.

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Mr. Modi is scheduled to give a major speech to nearly 10,000 Indo-Canadians at Toronto's Ricoh Coliseum and attend a banquet dinner with Mr. Harper in Vancouver. He is also expected to meet with the heads of banks, pension funds and other financial leaders and visit Sikh and Hindu places of worship during his three-day trip.

Organizers of Mr. Modi's public events say far more people registered to attend than could be accommodated, a sign that the man who is often described as a rock-star politician will receive a warm welcome from many of his admirers in Canada. But the visit will also attract some protesters, including those who are keen to draw attention to the Gujarat riots and to use the opportunity to call for a referendum on independence in Punjab state.

Balpreet Singh, legal counsel for the World Sikh Organization of Canada, said his group has no plans to protest Mr. Modi's visit and welcomes any effort to increase ties between Canada and India. However, he said Canada also has "a duty" to raise concerns about human rights and violence against religious minorities during Mr. Modi's visit.

Mr. Singh said attacks against Muslims and Christians have worsened since Mr. Modi became prime minister last year, and pointed out that U.S. President Barack Obama raised the issue of religious divisions during a visit to India earlier this year. "We believe that Prime Minister Harper also has a similar opportunity to raise this issue and we feel it will make a difference," Mr. Singh said.

Sikhs for Justice, which has offices in Toronto and New York, hired a Toronto-based civil and human-rights lawyer to present a case for prosecuting Mr. Modi during his visit to Canada. Marlys Edwardh wrote a letter to Justice Minister Peter MacKay this week, calling on him to charge Mr. Modi for torture and genocide in connection with religious riots in Gujarat. The allegations relate to religious riots that took place in 2002, after a train carrying Hindus was attacked and subsequently burst into flames, killing dozens of passengers. In the weeks that followed, about 1,000 Muslims were killed in riots, and another 150,000 were driven from their homes.

Mr. Modi, who had become the state's chief minister just months before the riots occurred, was previously denied a visa to the United States over allegations he had failed to stop the violence. He is no longer barred from that country.

The letter asks Mr. MacKay to respond in writing within five days "so that process can be issued in respect of the above-described charges."

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A spokesman for the Prime Minister's Office directed questions about Mr. Modi's visit to Foreign Affairs Minister Rob Nicholson's office on Thursday. Mr. Nicholson's spokeswoman declined to say whether Mr. Harper would raise the issue of religious divisions in India with Mr. Modi.

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