Jaspal Atwal row has turned into farce, continues to cloud India-Canada relations, hits Justin Trudeau's approval ratings

Justin Trudeau's eight-day tour of India ended last month, but the media circus surrounding the Canadian prime minister's visit is yet to leave town. On Thursday, the latest act was unveiled at the law office of Rishi Gill in Vancouver. This was the day Jaspal Atwal was to break his silence. Atwal, of course, is the person convicted of an act of terror in 1986, after attempting to assassinate a visiting minister from Punjab.

The conspiracy blew up after a senior Canadian official hinted at a conspiracy theory, that rogue elements in the Indian establishment had wangled an invitation for him to attend a dinner reception for Trudeau in New Delhi just to humiliate the Canadian prime minister.

Given the context of absurdity that framed Atwal's appearance in Mumbai, it was little surprise then that it also enveloped the press conference at which the contrite 63-year-old read out a statement and then sat back in stony silence, as his lawyer, swivelling in his chair, responded to queries from the curious media, at one stage upbraiding journalists for their "obsession" with La Affair Atwal.

File image of Jaspal Atwal with Justin Trudeau's wife Sophie in Mumbai. News18

File image of Jaspal Atwal with Justin Trudeau's wife Sophie in Mumbai. News18

Gill had earlier warned anyone against asking Atwal questions, and one reporter in the room transgressed. Just about the only time Atwal spoke, other than to read out the statement, was to inform Gill he became a Canadian citizen in 1977.

Given that his client's presence in India and the infamous invite have played a vital role in undermining ties between India and Canada, and even dragged down Trudeau's approval ratings and re-election prospects, the compulsion is obviously understandable.

Unfortunately, a couple of significant facts emerging from the presser could be lost in the noise over the atmosphere it was held in.

First, the rogue elements theory has been exposed as being daft. That the Canadian National Security Advisor propagated it, as per Canadian media identifying him as the anonymous briefer, is baffling. That Trudeau continues to back that line is another sign of the desperate reactions of the Canadian government after being shell-shocked by the reception the prime minister received in India.

As Gill said, "Atwal, at no point, has considered himself or been approached by any Indian representative in such a fashion that he would act as an agent of some sort. There is some bandying about of the word informant. That is not correct."

Not surprisingly, the Canadian Opposition has latched on to this added reminder of the weak legs of a story he was planted by the nefarious India establishment. Opposition leader Andrew Scheer said, "By continuing to support a conspiracy theory that is unsupported by any proof and has been met only with denials by those alleged to be involved, Justin Trudeau is making unsubstantiated allegations to distract attention from his disastrous India trip. Trudeau is failing to be honest with Canadians about the Atwal affair. Canadians deserve answers."

Atwal has been granted Indian visas in the past

Atwal has been granted Indian visas in the past

And secondly, this wasn't Atwal's first visit to India since his imprisonment on a conviction related to the 1987 act of terrorism. He visited in 1999 and in 2002, and was also denied a visa during the mid-2000s. He then received a one-month visa in 2017 as part of the Narendra Modi's government's outreach programme, then a three-month visa, followed by a one-year multiple entry visa.

His trip was personal and was already planned and he made a single request to Liberal MP Randeep Sarai to attend official receptions during Trudeau's visit to India, and that was met with alacrity.

Thirdly, Atwal has disavowed separatism and reiterated he no longer believes in Khalistan. That, however, doesn't take away from the fact he attempted a political assassination once for a terrorist cause and should never have figured on any formal guest list, regardless of his remorse.

But that's the basic problem with Trudeau's Liberal Party, and one that also afflicts the New Democratic Party and even the Conservatives in Canada: Getting along with bad actors in the Khalistan drama being played out in Canada over the past four decades is a routine act. In some instances, as with the Atwal controversy, it has turned into a farce.

But just as they never took it seriously enough in 1985 prior to the bombing of Air India Flight 182, which killed 329 persons, it can turn to tragedy.

Updated Date: Mar 09, 2018 16:25 PM

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