OTTAWA — Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan says he hopes the Indian government will do more to find justice for the thousands of Sikhs who were killed in violent riots more than 30 years ago.
Sajjan made the comments Wednesday during what has been a homecoming of sorts to the Asian country, where he was born and lived until coming to Canada with his family when he was five years old.
Part of the minister's trip has been to reconnect with his family's history, but it is also intended to establish closer relations between the two countries.
Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan observes a moment of silence at the All India War Memorial in New Delhi on April 18, 2017. (Photo: Rajat Gupta/EPA via The Canadian Press)
Speaking by telephone from the city of Amritsar, home to one of Sikhism's holiest sites, Sajjan said talks are underway on an agreement that would facilitate more military-to-military ties.
"We have had good defence relationships in the past," he said, "but we want to discuss how we move this forward."
Yet Sajjan, one of four Sikhs in Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's cabinet, said the riots and killings that occurred across India in 1984 have also figured prominently in his meetings with Indian officials.
The violence followed the assassination of Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards, after she ordered a military attack on the Golden Temple in Amritsar to root out Sikh nationalists.
Estimates put the number of dead during the riots at between 3,000 and 8,000.
'Canadians have a direct reason to be concerned'
A number of commissions and inquiries have since been held, but human rights groups and Sikh groups say the main culprits — including members of the government at the time — remain at large.
Sajjan said some in Canada feel the Indian government hasn't done enough to seek justice for the victims, and "my personal viewpoint on this is Canadians have a direct reason to be concerned."
"They reminded me that Prime Minister (Narendra) Modhi has come out publicly to address this issue," he said of Indian officials.
"I appreciated their efforts on this and look forward to them moving forward even further."
While Modi established a special team two years ago to investigate the killings, including possible involvement by senior government officials, it moved last month to close 199 of the 293 cases.
Ontario Liberals and federal Liberals not the same: Sajjan
But the Indian Supreme Court intervened and said it would re-examine all 199.
Meanwhile, Indian officials appear to have had their own strong words for a recent motion put forward by an Ontario Liberal member of provincial parliament that labelled the riots a genocide.
The motion passed on April 6 by a vote of 34 to 5, out of 108 MPPs.
"Canadians have the right to freedom of speech," Sajjan said when asked his response to the Indian government's unhappiness over the motion.
"But we also had to remind them that … the Liberal Party of Ontario is not the federal Liberal Party of Canada."
Sajjan's arrival in Amritsar, located in the northern state of Punjab, had been highly anticipated ever since Punjab's top elected official, Amarinder Singh, accused the defence minister of being a "Khalistani."
His rocky reception
While the Khalistani movement is a broad term for those Sikhs who want an independent homeland, it has become synonymous with militant groups that used violence to advance the goal in the 1980s.
Authorities believe Khalistani extremists were responsible, for example, for the Air India bombing in 1985 that killed 329 people and which remains the worst terrorist attack in Canadian history.
Sajjan said he was "disappointed" with Singh's comments, which the Indian official made in a television interview a few days before the Canadian minister arrived in the country.
And he denied that there was any Khalistani movement in Canada, despite repeated assertions to the contrary from Indian authorities.
"If there was any evidence, any type of intelligence, our security forces will be looking at this immediately," Sajjan said. "And so the comments that were made by him, I don't know what the motivation was around that."
Wilfrid Laurier University expert Margaret Walton-Roberts said the fact the 1984 killings and the question of Khalistan have come up reflects the tricky nature of the Canada-India relationship, namely that many Indians here are Sikhs.
"It's highlighting the enormous complexity in terms of diaspora politics and the home nation," Walton-Roberts said.