By Sunil Narula

Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s visit to India was being watched by many people closely. The small minority of Sikh separatists in Canada were waiting to hear what Harper will say to the Indian government about their activities. The Indian government was looking for Harper to say something decisive on this issue.

As it turned out, Harper handled the issue quite well. On his visit to India, Harper said his government is firmly behind India and wants that country to always remain united. So it’s clear that he does not support the call of Canadian Sikh separatists.

But Harper also added that his stance should not be confused with denying people their political rights as long as they do not resort to violence.

At a news conference in Bangalore as he neared the end of his visit to India, Harper was asked if he thinks Sikh extremism is a problem in Canada and, if so, what he is doing to stop it.
The question came after Harper was dogged by the politically sensitive issue during his trip because senior leaders in the India government called on him to quell the rise of “anti-India rhetoric” in Canada.

They were referring to a small group of Sikhs who are advocating the creation of a separate state — Khalistan — in India.

“The government is completely supportive of the unity of India,” said Harper. “The government of Canada and I believe the vast majority of Canadian people, including the vast majority of Indo-Canadians, have no desire to see the revival of old hostilities in this great country, here in India.”

Harper added that his government monitors “extreme developments — those who may embrace violence or threats of violence or terrorism.”

“We watch these things very closely and we work very closely with our partners in the government of India.”

However, the prime minister said “that obviously cannot be confused with peoples’ right in Canada to advocate a political position.”

“It may be a political position that both the government of Canada and the government of India disagree with. We can’t interfere with the right of political freedom of expression.”

During his trip to India, Harper also made sure that he did all the right things. Harper visited Anandpur Sahib–the holy shrine of the Sikh community and paid obeisance at Takht Sri Kesgarh Sahib before visiting Virasat-e-Khalsa. He ate at a prominent dhaba in Chandigarh and mingled with the Indian community.

On Thursday morning, an Indian newspaper, the Tribune, had reported that Harper had said at one point during his Punjabi visit: “We are committed not to permit any secessionist activities on our soil.”

Harper’s aides denied the report and insisted he did not say those words.

Later in the day, when questioned at the news conference, Harper appeared keen to clarify where he stands.

During his trip, Harper met many of the Indian government’s leaders, including Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

Singh said the countries “have similar concerns in combating terrorism, extremism and radicalism.”

Preneet Kaur, the country’s minister of state for external affairs, complained about the “revival of anti-India rhetoric in Canada.”

Harper also indicated the Conservative government would take action if it detects that those Sikhs turn to violence to advance their cause.

Also, giving an unprecedented boost to their ties, India and Canada also announced the conclusion of thorny negotiations over administrative arrangements for operationalising the civil nuclear deal, which would facilitate Canadian companies to soon start exporting uranium and nuclear reactors to India.

The announcement ends close to four decades of tense relations between the two countries after Canada banned export of uranium to India in the wake of nuclear tests conducted by it in 1974.

The two countries signed a social security accord and MoUs on cooperation in information communication technology and electronics and between DRDO and York University of Canada for cooperation in the areas of joint research and development in defence science and technology after talks between Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his Canadian counterpart Stephen Harper.

”We welcome the recent progress made towards concluding the modalities for the effective operationalisation of the agreement on civil nuclear energy cooperation that we had signed in 2010,” Singh said at a brief media interaction jointly with Harper. On his part, the Canadian PM said: “Our government is committed to promoting greater trade and investment with India.

The conclusion of the administrative arrangement with India will facilitate opportunities for Canadian companies to play a greater role in meeting India’s growing energy needs. It is expected to generate millions of dollars in new business contacts between our countries and to create high-quality new jobs at home.”

The two sides had for long been holding negotiations to iron out differences on the nuclear accord. Ottawa was insisting that India must inform it how New Delhi was utilising the uranium exported by Canada companies. New Delhi, however, was of the view that such measures were not necessary since it was already complying with the guidelines.

Earlier, during Harper`s visit, Mamohan Singh had said in New Delhi, the two countries share priorities that go beyond expanding trade.

“India and Canada are nations built on shared values that celebrate democracy, inclusiveness and diversity,” said Singh.

“We have similar concerns in combating terrorism, extremism and radicalism. The prime minister and I agreed to deepen our counter-terrorism cooperation.”

Harper had heard a similar message from Preneet Kaur, the country’s minister of state for external affairs.

She expressed her nation’s concern about the “revival of anti-India rhetoric in Canada” — an apparent reference to the rise in radical extremism and calls from a small group of Sikhs for the establishment of Khalistan in the Punjab region.

“We have, after very hard times, got a good situation of peace and progress back in Punjab and in India and we would like that to continue,” said Kaur.

Harper responded with a direct pledge, though he made no direct reference to Sikh groups which favor a separate Khalistan.

“Canada is a very strong supporter of a united India,” Harper said.