A secessionist Sikh group is pressing Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to disavow calls from India’s envoy for Canada to crack down on funding of a movement to create a separate state in Punjab.
Sikhs for Justice, an organization headquartered in Washington, has written to Mr. Trudeau, disputing Indian High Commissioner Sanjay Kumar Verma’s recent comments to The Globe and Mail. Sikhs for Justice has been conducting referendums in Canadian cities on Punjab independence as part of a global campaign on the matter.
Mr. Verma told The Globe last month that New Delhi is concerned that some segments of the Sikh community in Canada are offering financial and other support to secessionists who want to separate Punjab from India. He called on Ottawa to crack down on diasporic funding of the Sikh independence movement that is seeking to create a sovereign homeland known as Khalistan.
Gurpatwant Pannun, the New York-based general counsel for Sikhs for Justice (SFJ), wrote to Mr. Trudeau Dec. 7, accusing Mr. Verma of interfering in Canadian domestic affairs and seeking to conscript Ottawa to promote the Indian government’s political ends. In a later interview, Mr. Pannun said it is correct to call Sikhs for Justice a secessionist group.
His letter to Mr. Trudeau also noted that the Indian envoy’s comments took place after 110,000 Canadian Sikhs voted in referendums on Sept. 18 in Brampton and 75,000 cast ballots on Nov. 6 in Mississauga on whether Punjab should achieve independence from India. Similar votes are being held in other major Canadian cities with significant Sikh populations and about 20 countries around the world.
The ballot question in this non-binding referendum is: “Should Indian-governed Punjab be an independent country?”
“Sikhs in Canada are not calling for the overthrow of the Indian government. Nor are they urging their brethren to take up arms against the Indian state,” Mr. Pannun wrote in the letter to Mr. Trudeau that was provided to The Globe. “Sikhs in Canada are simply peacefully voicing their support for the peaceful Khalistan independence movement. It is this allegedly illegal activity on which India asks Canada to crack down.”
Mr. Pannun urged Mr. Trudeau to make it “clear to the government of India that Canada will not allow a representative of a foreign government to pressure it into suppressing the free speech of its citizens, nor will it allow fear and hate mongering against Canadian Sikhs.”
A spokeswoman for Mr. Trudeau declined to say whether the Prime Minister would disavow Mr. Verma’s comments or whether Ottawa felt India was overstepping its bounds in Canada.
“We will always support freedom of expression and political participation for everyone in Canada,” Ann-Clara Vaillancourt, lead press secretary for Mr. Trudeau said. “When it comes to the Khalistan referendums currently happening around the world, our government has been clear that we respect the territorial integrity of India.
Mr. Pannun also expressed concern that “India’s ongoing propaganda against Canadian Sikhs may lead to an uptick in hate crimes against Sikhs in Canada and across the globe.”
New Delhi’s envoy told The Globe in November that India is concerned about “illegal channels which are being used by those Canadians of Indian origin who are trying to push for the dismemberment of India or secession from India.”
The Tribune, a north Indian daily, last year reported that India’s National Investigation Agency, a counterterrorism organization, visited Canada in November, 2021, to discuss with Canadian authorities “the funding routes for pro-Khalistan groups.”
Asked for comment on the letter to Mr. Trudeau from the Sikh group, India’s High Commissioner in Canada noted that Sikhs for Justice has been “declared as an unlawful association” by the government of India.
Mr. Verma, in a statement, said India adheres to the United Nations Charter and does not interfere in the internal affairs of other countries. “Any attempt to threaten the territorial integrity and sovereignty of India is against all applicable provisions of international law. India will continue its efforts in keeping its territorial integrity and sovereignty secured, while remaining committed to all its international obligations.”
The Canadian government has distanced itself from the unofficial and non-binding referendums organized by the SFJ, which has been banned in India for advocating separatism.
David Morrison, the deputy minister of Foreign Affairs, told his Indian counterpart in early November that “Canada respects the sovereignty and territorial integrity of India and does not recognize or support unofficial referendums,” according to a readout released by the Department of Global Affairs.
At the same time, Mr. Morrison also told the Indian official that “people in Canada are free to assemble and express their views, so long as they do so peacefully and lawfully.”
The Liberals, Conservatives and NDP parties have members of the Sikh faith in their caucuses and consider Sikh Canadians an important voting bloc.
But Ottawa has also signalled that it wants to open doors to closer economic and diplomatic ties with India as part of its Indo-Pacific strategy.
Ottawa-New Delhi relations have been frosty since Mr. Trudeau became Prime Minister in 2015, including an ill-fated trip in 2018 where Jaspal Atwal, convicted of trying to assassinate an Indian cabinet minister in 1986, was invited to dine with the Prime Minister during the visit. The invitation was rescinded after it came to light but he was earlier photographed with Sophie Grégoire Trudeau and then-infrastructure minister Amarjeet Sohi at an earlier event in Mumbai.
In 2020, India also accused Mr. Trudeau of inciting “extremist activities” after he raised concerns about New Delhi’s response to farmers protesting against a law that they feared would leave them vulnerable to exploitation by corporations. Mr. Trudeau said Canada would always support the right of farmers to be heard.
The Liberal and Conservative parties have said they support a united India while supporting the rights of Canadian Sikhs to peacefully advocate for an independent Punjab.
But NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, who has in the past attended Khalistan rallies before becoming leader in 2017, has declined to say where he stood on the issue. The NDP has demanded that Mr. Verma present evidence of illegal funding to law enforcement.