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India’s government is taking aim at Justin Trudeau on the heels of a trip to the country that has become a diplomatic debacle, with a spokesman for Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government calling the Canadian leader’s remarks “baseless and unacceptable.”
Trudeau’s trip last week was marred by questions of whether his government was too sympathetic toward Sikh separatists who want an independent Punjab carved out of northwestern India. No issue was more embarrassing for the Canadian prime minister than his delegation meeting with Jaspal Atwal - a man once convicted in Canada of the attempted murder of a visiting Indian cabinet minister, according to the Canadian Press and other news agencies. After it was made public, Canada rescinded Atwal’s invitation to a dinner reception in New Delhi.
A senior Canadian government official then spoke to journalists covering the trip and reportedly floated the idea Atwal’s presence may have been facilitated by rogue factions within India’s government - an explosive allegation of, essentially, sabotage. Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer called the briefing an “embarrassing blunder.”
Trudeau, however, stood by the unidentified official’s remarks. “When one of our top diplomats and security officials says something to Canadians, it is because they know it to be true,” the prime minister told lawmakers Tuesday in his first appearance in Parliament since the trip.
It was that remark that led to the statement by the Indian government Wednesday, issued online by spokesman Raveesh Kumar and circulated on Twitter by the country’s high commissioner to Canada.
“Let me categorically state that the Government of India, including the security agencies, had nothing to do with the presence of Jaspal Atwal at the event hosted by the Canadian High Commissioner in Mumbai or the invitation issued to him for the Canadian High Commissioner’s reception in New Delhi,” Kumar said. “Any suggestion to the contrary is baseless and unacceptable.”
Chris Alexander, a former immigration minister under the Conservatives, called the statement “unprecedented.”
Canadian lawmaker Randeep Sarai, a member of the Trudeau’s Liberal Party, has claimed responsibility for the invitations. On Tuesday, he resigned as chair of the Liberal caucus in the west-coast province of British Columbia. “I want to again apologize for my role in recent unfortunate events. Moving forward, I will be exercising better judgment,” he said in a tweet.
Atwal was also photographed posing with Trudeau’s wife and a cabinet minister in Mumbai. Atwal has since told the Canadian Press that he knows Trudeau and was surprised when the prime minister distanced himself from him. Canada’s high commission in India said it had rescinded Atwal’s invitation; Atwal told the news agency he volunteered not to go, to save Trudeau embarrassment.
The prime minister’s trip has also been criticized as a vacation that included too few meetings with Modi’s government. It was marked by a series of photo opportunities with Trudeau, his wife and children in traditional Indian attire, which proved to be a punchline for, among others, HBO host John Oliver.