Canada’s denial of a visa to a UK-based interlocutor has stalled backchannel talks between India and one-time proponents of Khalistan, a hypothetical Sikh homeland, with no meetings or discussions having taken place for two years, people familiar with the development said.
The outreach was launched by India in late 2015, after Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited London and met, among others, Jasdev Singh Rai, director of the Sikh Human Rights Group, who emerged as a key person for contacts with Sikh groups.
Following that meeting, Rai, a British citizen, visited Canada and met former pro-Khalistan elements willing to engage in talks with New Delhi.
However, in late 2016, Rai was denied electronic travel authorisation (ETA) by Ottawa as he was once associated with the International Sikh Youth Federation (ISYF), a banned terror group in Canada. Before that, Rai had travelled to Canada at least 25 times and kept the Security Intelligence Service of Canada informed about his contacts with Sikh groups.
As a result, Rai and senior Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader, Ram Madhav, could not go ahead with a planned meeting in Toronto with radical Sikh groups. With Sikh groups unwilling to hold talks in Rai’s absence, there were no more meetings or discussions with the Indian government, the people cited above said on condition of anonymity.
Indian officials confirmed the talks ceased after Rai was prevented from travelling to Canada and were privately critical of that action by Ottawa.
A spokesperson for Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, responding to queries from Hindustan Times, said, “Due to privacy laws, we cannot comment on specific cases without signed consent.”
Among those who participated in the initial talks with Rai was Harjit Atwal, based in the British Columbia town of Surrey. Atwal said there had been “nothing” in terms of progress with regard to the talks. “I haven’t talked to Rai for a long time, almost a year,” he said. Atwal, once a votary of Khalistan and a member of ISYF, attributed the lack of progress to Rai’s absence: “He’s the one who was in the front seat.”
The denial of a visa to Rai, first reported by HT in February 2018, was one of the factors believed to have contributed to the frosty reception accorded to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau during his visit to India about a year ago.
The people cited above said Rai was informed by Canadian authorities that he was denied permission to enter the country as he was seen as a “threat to a friendly democratic government” that he was working to “overthrow”. Though the Canadian authorities didn’t name any country, they were referring to India, the people said.
Ironically, Rai is among the official invitees to Pravasi Bharatiya Divas (PBD) — the government’s main outreach event for the Indian diaspora — in Varanasi between January 21 and 23. “How can Rai be seen as a threat if the Indian government is inviting him to the PBD?” a person said.
The people said there had been success in talking to UK-based Sikh groups but there is a greater need to focus on groups in Canada, where there continues to be support for Khalistan among more radical elements.
Sikh groups, including Sikh Human Rights Group, have welcomed the life sentence given to former Congress leader Sajjan Kumar for his role in the 1985 anti-Sikh riots. They have also welcomed the removal of names of many Sikhs from a so-called “black list” maintained by the Indian government.
Atwal benefited from the Indian government’s outreach effort, and visited India in 2017 after a decade. The 63-year-old appeared to be in favour of the outreach, as he said, “As long as in India people don’t get discriminated [against], people want peace.”
Pro-Khalistan groups such as Sikhs for Justice opposed the talks but Atwal felt they were in a minority, “…[A] majority of people want peace,” he said.
A second person familiar with developments said meetings will pick up pace and the talks will gain momentum. “We have done a lot of work with these groups in London, US and Canada. Follow up is needed and a group is coming next week from abroad to thank PM Modi and home minister Rajnath Singh for opening the Kartarpur corridor, among other things,” the second person said, referring to the recent move by India and Pakistan to open a corridor to allow pilgrims to visit the Kartarpur Gurdwara in Pakistan.
Gurdarshan Singh Dhillon,a Sikh historian and retired Panjab University professor, said: “It is not justified on the part of the Canadian government to deny visa to Jasdev Singh Rai, because denying entry means a curb on freedom of expression.”