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The Globe and Mail

After an awkward India visit, will Trudeau learn his lesson?

Sonya Fatah is an assistant professor at the Ryerson School of Journalism.

Photo ops have limitations, as Justin Trudeau is learning on his inaugural visit to India as Prime Minister of Canada. Mr. Trudeau may not have thought family photographs shot against the backdrop of the magnificent Taj Mahal or in the rustic confines of the elephant conservation centre in Mathura would backfire. If the delegation returns without making substantial gains to trade numbers, while incurring losses to the enduring cultural relationship between the two countries, the optics of this visit may not have the intended impact.

Six days into his eight-day visit to India, Mr. Trudeau is yet to meet Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Welcomed by a junior Agricultural Minister at the tarmac and having finally met with Punjab's Chief Minister, Amarinder Singh, the overarching result of his diplomatic mission has been a series of photo opportunities.

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So far, very little has moved to push the scale up on the lowly $8-billion of Indo-Canadian annual trade.

The Trudeau government is trying to keep the focus of his current visit on economic progress and job creation – Mr. Trudeau tweeted the creation of 5,800 new jobs and a number of agreements adding up to $1-billion. But the Hindu nationalist party in power – with Mr. Modi at its apex – is using this prime ministerial visit as a game changer on a more divisive cultural issue: Khalistan, a separatist Sikh nation. Indian media coverage of the Canadian delegation has focused almost squarely on the support for Khalistan in Canada.

Several political realities are intersecting on this challenging visit. Mr. Trudeau's cabinet consists of four ministers of Indian origin, all of them Sikh. There is also a personal history with Amarinder Singh, who visited Canada ahead of his election as the Sikh-majority Punjab state's chief minister and was denied access to Indian congregations.

Also, Mr. Trudeau's previous participation in public events such as the Khalsa Day parade where separatist leaders – as well as those behind the 1985 Air India bombing – are lionized. Finally, there is a concern of growing support for Khalistan among the Canadian diaspora, heightened by the decision of gurdwaras across Canada to bar the entry of official Indian delegations to their premises. Given that Canada has long harboured a reputation as a place where diaspora groups congregate to support separatist movements (Sri Lanka, India, for example), Mr. Trudeau may return from India more attuned to particular realities of the vote banks and donors whose support he seeks.

Still, the reality is there isn't much support for Khalistan in India today. In Punjab, falling farm incomes and drug abuse are larger, more pressing concerns.

The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, over which Mr. Modi presides, has a vested interest in building more mileage out of the Khalistan issue, something created when the opposition party, the Indian National Congress was in power. Its then leader Indira Gandhi presided over the ill-conceived and fateful Operation Blue Star, when one of the holiest of Sikh sites in Amritsar, the Golden Temple, was stormed.

And Canadian gurdwaras are not the only ones to have shuttered their doors to Indian officials – gurdwaras in the United States and Britain have followed suit, part of a strategic response to the November arrest of a British Sikh activist on charges of allegedly seeking to attack Hindu nationalist leaders.

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India has rolled out the red carpet for more contentious visits, such as that of Chinese president Xi Jinping to India when China's border behaviour has been far more threatening to India's national interests.

India's response to Canada's visit has more to do with what was on offer. Not enough, it seems, in terms of strategic economic advantage, the result of which has been a brouhaha about Khalistan and a snub to the visiting Prime Minister.

But a good lesson may come of this at a domestic, cultural level. Mr. Trudeau, as well as the NDP's Jagmeet Singh, may be looking to a sizable Sikh vote base to strengthen their electoral position – but that's doesn't mean they should fall back on free speech whenever they are questioned on the Khalistan issue, especially given Canada's own history with the Khalistan movement.

Many younger Canadians don't remember or connect the 1985 Air India bombing to the Khalistan movement and the Canadian government's response to that bombing and the judicial verdicts were never enough.

When Mr. Trudeau – or any Canadian leader for that matter – attends cultural parades partly as a photo opportunity or to strengthen the possibility of donations from those camps, it's important to know a man widely considered the leader of one of the biggest mass murders of Canadian citizens – Talwinder Singh Parmar in this case – is being honoured.

The lesson from this India mission is clear. It may no longer be enough to turn a blind eye and parachute into cultural events without investigating the forces behind them. Not for a photo opportunity, and not for a slice of the vote bank either.

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Justin Trudeau and his family visited the Golden Temple, the holiest site in Sikhism, in Amritsar, India on Wednesday. The prime minister also helped make roti in the kitchen. The Canadian Press
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