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In Punjab, Harper walks a political fine line

Stephen Harper has found himself walking a fine line during his India visit this week, placating New Delhi after it put pressure on him to crack down on Sikh separatists in Canada, but then journeying to one of the religion's most sacred spots to show Punjabi voters he's not tarring them as extremist.

Mr. Harper travelled by plane and helicopter to the Sikh faith's second holiest city, in northern India on Wednesday, a trip that came one day after Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's government publicly pressed Ottawa to stay vigilant on Sikh extremism in Canada.

While only about 2 per cent of Indians are Sikh, about half of Indian immigrants to Canada trace their roots to the Punjab region, Mr. Harper's latest stop on a six-day tour of India. It is not a place he can afford to skip given the sizable role that Indo-Canadian voters played in helping the Conservatives win seats in the Greater Toronto Area.

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After landing in the Punjab capital of Chandigarh on Wednesday, the Prime Minister flew by chopper to Anandpur Sahib, a city revered by Sikh adherents, where he visited the Khalsa Heritage Memorial Complex.

The recently opened museum, designed by Israeli-Canadian architect Moshe Safdie, traces the 500 years of history of the Sikh religion.

The Prime Minister's tour of the holy city, however, was largely confined to photo opportunities, which ensured he would not face in-depth questions about his views on militant Sikh separatism or the value the Conservatives place on Indo-Canadian voters originally from the region.

Mr. Harper visited a famous gurdwara, or Sikh house of worship, in Anandpur Sahib, where he spent about 15 minutes chatting out of media earshot with dignitaries.

Mr. Harper met with Punjabi and Canadian journalists after touring the Khalsa Heritage Memorial Complex but replied only cursorily when a reporter asked him about India's concerns regarding Sikh extremism in Canada.

"I think the Indian government knows our position, we're aware of the challenges and we'll keep working on those things," the Prime Minister said.

It was just Tuesday that India's junior foreign minister used a meeting with Mr. Harper to voice her country's continued anxiety about what it considers resurgent support in Canada for a movement to establish a separatist Sikh state called Khalistan in the Punjab region.

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"Prime Minister, there was another area of great concern for us, which was the revival of anti-India rhetoric in Canada," Preneet Kaur, Minister of State for External Affairs, told Mr. Harper during his stop in New Delhi.

"We have after very hard times got a good situation of peace and progress back in Punjab and in India and we would like that to continue – so it does concern us," Ms. Kaur said.

Replying on Tuesday, Mr. Harper had carefully restricted his response by telling the minister during their brief public meeting that "Canada is a very strong supporter of a united India."

In a recent interview, retired police inspector general Kanwar Pal Singh Gill, who led the operation to crush the militant Khalistan movement in Punjab in the 1980s and 1990s, said that supporters of Sikh separatism in Canada are able to project a message that far outweighs their true level of influence.

"The propaganda apparatus in Canada of the Khalistanis seems to be fairly strong," Mr. Gill said, adding that the movement is largely dead in India but continues to be nourished in Canada because of the disproportionate presence of pro-Khalistan Sikhs who migrated there in the 1980s during the years of violence in India.

"They create an illusion that this movement is very strong and they have a great ability to persuade people abroad that something is happening and let's have a look at it."

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But Western governments have become smarter about militant Sikhism, he said.

The government of the United States used to take him to task for human rights violations that occurred when he battled the militants, Mr. Gill said, but the tone of those conversations changed dramatically after the U.S. itself became the victim of a major terrorist attack.

"They create an illusion that this movement is very strong and they have a great ability to persuade people abroad that something is happening and let's have a look at it … the political climate has changed after 9/11."

In recent years, former Liberal cabinet minister Ujjal Dosanjh, a Sikh, has warned that he believes Sikh extremism is on the rise in Canada.

"It's more entrenched, it's more sophisticated and sometimes it's double-faced," he told Agence France-Presse in a 2010 interview.

In 2010, Mr. Dosanjh and another Sikh politician were publicly advised by the organizer of a Sikh parade in British Columbia that their safety could not be guaranteed if they chose to attend. Mr. Dosanjh, an outspoken moderate, had previously complained about a parade float that featured a picture of the alleged mastermind of the Air India Flight 182 bombing.

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Parliamentary reporter

Steven Chase has covered federal politics in Ottawa for The Globe since mid-2001, arriving there a few months before 9/11. He previously worked in the paper's Vancouver and Calgary bureaus. Prior to that, he reported on Alberta politics for the Calgary Herald and the Calgary Sun, and on national issues for Alberta Report. More

Latin America Bureau Chief

Stephanie Nolen is the Latin America correspondent for The Globe and Mail.After years as a roving correspondent that included coverage of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Stephanie moved to Johannesburg in 2003 to open a new bureau for The Globe, to report on what she believed was the world's biggest uncovered story, Africa's AIDS pandemic. More

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