Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland’s office says it was “inappropriate” for Indian diplomats to interfere in a cultural festival outside of Toronto.
The allegations stem from a controversy last summer in which Indian consular officials reportedly tried to dissuade the annual Carabram festival in Brampton, Ont. – a city west of Toronto with a large Indian population – from having separate Punjab and India pavilions. Punjab is the only state in India with a Sikh majority.
“Interference in domestic affairs by foreign representatives in Canada is inappropriate,” Ms. Freeland’s spokesman, Adam Austen, wrote in an e-mail to The Globe and Mail.
“The federal government has no role in planning Carabram, but supports the right of its organizers to do so however they see fit.”
Brampton Mayor Linda Jeffrey first raised concerns about “unwarranted and unwelcome interference” by the Consulate General of India in a letter to Ms. Freeland on Aug. 18, 2017.
In the letter, which has never been made public but was obtained by The Globe and Mail, Ms. Jeffrey said her office learned in July, 2017, that officials with the Consulate General in Toronto approached organizers of Carabram to cancel the Punjab pavilion, or merge it with the India pavilion. She also alleges that consular officials tried to pressure organizers to change the name to the Punjabi cultural pavilion. In the end, the Punjab pavilion went ahead.
“This type of unwarranted interference by Indian officials in a local cultural festival in Brampton was shocking,” Ms. Jeffrey wrote in the letter, which asks Ms. Freeland to look into the matter.
Ms. Jeffrey said it is her understanding that consular officials threatened to “go to the highest office in the country and cancel this festival.”
The allegations of improper interference come at a time of heightened tensions between Canada and the Indian government.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau continues to face pressure from Opposition MPs to allow his national security adviser, Daniel Jean, to testify in public at committee about the Prime inister’s recent trip to India.
Mr. Trudeau caused a diplomatic stir last month after Jaspal Atwal, who was convicted of attempting to murder a visiting Indian politician on Vancouver Island in 1986, was invited to official events. Mr. Jean suggested to reporters during a background briefing that Mr. Atwal’s presence may have been engineered by factions in India that want to prevent Prime Minister Narenda Modi from getting too close to a foreign government they believe is not committed to a united India. The Indian government has denied the claim.
NDP leader Jagmeet Singh also found himself on the defensive over recent revelations that he spoke at a Sikh separatist rally in 2015 and participated in a panel discussion in 2016 where speakers endorsed political violence as part of an effort to create a Sikh homeland separate from India. Mr. Singh says he has always opposed acts of terrorism or violence.
Officials at the Consulate General in Toronto and the High Commission of India in Ottawa did not respond to requests for comment.
Ms. Jeffrey’s spokesman, Jaskaran Singh Sandhu, said the mayor stood by her letter but wouldn’t comment further. Mr. Sandhu said Ms. Freeland’s office never replied to the letter.
Carabram is an annual festival in Brampton, first started in 1982, where non-profit groups representing different cultures set up pavilions that offer food and entertainment.
Prithpal Chagger, president of the Punjab pavilion, said he believes his pavilion was singled out because of concerns that it would be used to advocate for an independent Sikh state, known as Khalistan. Mr. Chagger’s brother is the grandfather of Liberal House Leader Bardish Chagger, who told The Globe she was unaware of the situation and had not spoken with Mr. Chagger about it.
“The only objection from the Indian government is they don’t want anybody who is talking about Khalistan,” Mr. Chagger said. “But they label everybody and say they are Khalistani if they wear a turban.”
Angela Johnson, president of Carabram, said she was surprised that the Indian consulate would try to pressure them to shut down the Punjab pavilion.
She said that it’s up to the non-profit groups in charge of pavilions to determine how they would celebrate. “It was their choice and we saw no reason to object to it,” she said. Ms. Johnson confirmed the Punjab pavilion will be part of this year’s Carabram.
Dr. Maher Hussain, one of the organizers of the India pavilion, said it “would be ideal” if Punjab was part of the India pavilion. “If we have a Punjab pavilion, that means the Carabram people are supporting separate Punjab, separatism,” he said, adding he was willing to participate in the festival either way.
Sanjeev Malik, president of Uttar Pradeshies in Canada, which represents a state in northern India, said his group approached the Consulate General’s office to try to merge the Punjab pavilion with the Indian pavilion.
“There are some separatists here in Canada. They want Punjab to be separate from India. And that’s the reason they want their separate pavilion,” Mr. Malik said. “If somebody said that they want a separate Quebec, being a Canadian citizen, I’m going to oppose that.”
Arshy Mann is a freelance writer