Stephen Harper is pushing back at suggestions that Ottawa needs to do more about Sikh separatist activity in Canada, saying his government already keeps a sharp lookout for terrorist threats and that merely advocating for a Khalistan homeland in the Punjab is not a crime.
He said violence and terrorism cannot be confused with the right of Canadians to hold and promote their political views.
"It may be a political position that both the government of Canada and the government of India disagree with," the Prime Minister said during a visit to the southern Indian city of Bangalore on Thursday.
He added that "we can't interfere with the right of political freedom of expression."
Mr. Harper said he believes other political parties in Canada agree that merely advocating for a Khalistan homeland in the Punjab is not illegal.
"The government of Canada's policy positions on these matters are extremely well known," he told journalists. "I believe they are shared across the political spectrum – and they're not going to change."
Mr. Harper's comments struck a sharply different tone from those of Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird when he visited India in September. Responding to a question about anti-India activities in Canada, Mr. Baird said his government would do "everything it can possibly do, under the law, to combat radical extremism." He later wrote an open letter saying his remarks seemed to have been taken out of context.
Paul Dewar, the New Democratic Party's foreign affairs critic, said he was glad to see the Prime Minister distinguish between political activism and violent extremism.
"I think that's a welcome change from the government, that Mr. Harper is clearly backing away from what Mr. Baird said and is clearly distinguishing between those that would use violence and those that would want to articulate their right to freedom of expression," Mr. Dewar said.
He added that suggestions that pro-Khalistan extremism is a problem in Canada hurt the country's Sikh community, and called on the Prime Minister to meet with its members to clarify the government's position.
A Liberal Party spokeswoman said she was unable to provide an immediate response on Mr. Harper's comments.
Mr. Harper has walked a fine line during his India visit this week, fielding pressure from New Delhi to crack down on Sikh separatists in Canada, then journeying to one of the religion's most sacred spots to show Punjabi voters he does not see them as extremist.
An Indian government minister pressed Mr. Harper during his six-day trade visit to the south Asian country on what New Delhi calls a revival of "anti-India" voices in Canada. That is code for Sikhs who want a separate homeland carved out of India.
Near the end of his visit, Mr. Harper made it clear that Canada unequivocally backs a united India.
"The government of Canada, and I believe the vast majority of Canadian people, including the vast majority of Indo-Canadians, have no desire to see the revival of old hostilities in this great country," Mr. Harper said.
About half of Indian immigrants to Canada trace their roots to the Punjab region. It is not a place Mr. Harper could afford to skip during his visit given the sizeable role that Indo-Canadian voters played in helping the Conservatives win Greater Toronto Area seats.
Balpreet Singh, spokesman for the World Sikh Organization of Canada, said he was pleased with Mr. Harper's remarks.
"I think Prime Minister Harper has stood up for Canadian values. Freedom of expression is a fundamental right in Canada," he said. "If anyone is advocating for violence, that would be of grave concern to us as well."
With a report from Wendy Stueck