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India, Canada to end acrimony

Jyoti Malhotra  |  New Delhi 

India and Canada will end their official acrimony later this weekend when they sign an agreement for cooperation in the civil nuclear sphere, bringing to an end a chapter in betrayal and denial that lasted 36 long years.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh will be feted by Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper the day after the G-20 summit in Toronto and both men will gladly bid goodbye to the frost and bitterness that has defined bilateral ties since India went nuclear in 1974 and Canada accused India of using plutonium generated from Canadian reactors that had been sold to India expressly for peaceful uses in that nuclear test.

“The universe is opening for us,” said Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao, pointing out that the end of nuclear sanctions by the US in 2008 had helped change the attitudes of several countries, from South Korea and Canada, in favour of developing nuclear relations with India.

Indian officials admit that Harper, who heads a minority government at home, had pushed for the conclusion of such a civil nuclear energy deal, allowing Canada to sell both nuclear reactors as well as nuclear fuel for India’s civil nuclear energy programme, despite the fact that India had not signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

Canada will now join the US, France, Russia and South Korea in sealing civil nuclear agreements with India, and signed additional pacts to source uranium for its civil reactors also from Kazakhstan, Namibia and Mongolia.

The Prime Minister’s visit also coincides with the end of a 25-year-long Canadian investigation into the Air India ‘Kanishka’ tragedy in which 331 people were killed, mostly of Indian origin. While pro-Khalistan Sikh extremists living in Canada and fighting against the Indian state were held responsible for the crime, Indian opinion has been hugely critical of the manner in which the wheels of justice have ground so slowly in Canada.

With the nuclear deal under its belt, however, Indian officials were not willing to be drawn out either on the Canadian Parliament’s condemnation of the 1984 Sikh riots as “genocide” or on the pro-Khalistan terrorists who continue to live in Canada.

“We don’t look back, we look at the future,” said Vivek Katju, a senior official in the Ministry of External Affairs, when asked to comment on the Canadian banning of nuclear trade after Indira Gandhi’s government undertook the first nuclear explosion in 1974.

In fact, Canada’s minister for international trade, Stockwell Day, who visited New Delhi in January along with representatives of Canada’s top nuclear companies such as Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd (a government-owned company which builds and sells nuclear reactors), SNC Lavalin Nuclear and Cameco Corp, had told reporters at the time that India’s nuclear market was a “huge opportunity for Canada on the technology and on the supply side”.

Ironically, the India-Canada deal will be on the heels of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) meeting in New Zealand where the question of China assisting Pakistan’s nuclear programme is likely to come up.

Asked if the Prime Minister would raise this matter with Canada, an NSG member which helped India with its exemption in 2008, Foreign Secretary Rao indicated that the matter would likely come up.

“We are monitoring the debate carefully,” she said, even though India was not a member of the NSG, she added.

A comprehensive economic agreement to push bilateral trade beyond its current $5 billion position is unlikely to fructify, but it is likely that Canada and India will be unhappy about imposing a financial transactions tax at the G-20 summit, something the US and several European countries want.

However, memoranda of understanding on energy, culture and education are also likely to be signed.

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First Published: Wed, June 23 2010. 00:31 IST