National Column: Trudeau’s visit to India paved with good intentions

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by Shree Paradkar

If apparel oft proclaims the man, then Polonius, who uttered those words in Hamlet, would have quite literally given our prime minister a dressing down this week. From the viewpoint of the Shakespearean character, Justin Trudeau would have broken the basic rules: his clothes were as costly as money could buy, but gaudy, too, proclaiming him unserious.

A charitable supposition would be that maybe – just maybe – since Canada is barely a blip on Indian consciousness, Trudeau decided to lean on his celebrity status to make an impression.

That much he did. So groan-inducing has Trudeau’s visit to India appeared thus far that it merits being rated as a cliched Bollywood drama.

Over-the-top sherwanis and kurta pyjamas, Bhangra sequences, overly choreographed family time
overdoing the namastes. Then a touch of villainous melodrama – a mistaken invitation to Jaspal Atwal, a man convicted of attempting to kill an Indian cabinet minister on Vancouver Island in 1986.

Atwal was also charged, but not convicted, in connection with a 1985 attack on Ujjal Dosanjh, a former Liberal health minister and former premier of British Columbia.

That faux pas for which the Liberals apologized would be a terrible development during any official visit. On this one, it gave lie to Trudeau and Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan’s appeasement of the Punjab chief minister’s concerns of official Canadian support for the Sikh separatist movement.

The demand for a separate nation of Khalistan is an issue that has little support among Sikhs in India. It does not enjoy unanimous support here, either.

The concerns were fair: Trudeau’s appearance at a Sikh parade in Toronto last year with yellow and blue Khalistan flags in the background and posters of Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale – the late leader of the Khalistani movement – was not looked upon kindly in India.

Nor would Canada be sympathetic to a visiting foreign leader who posed with Quebec separatists.

Many of the poor first impressions would have been avoided had planners simply switched Day 6 to Day 1. Trudeau, finally wearing a business suit, met Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Friday, got that equally cringe-inducing – but in this case gratefully received – trademark bear hug from Modi, and was received with state honours.

Was there really no adviser in our PMO or the Foreign Office who said before the trip, “Meet Modi first. Go easy on the clothes. Wrap up the visit in three days. Be prepared to deal with the separatist issue”?

Earlier in the month, an expert told Global News, “There’s no question that the whole Khalistan question will overshadow this trip.”

Then an unnamed government official told the news outlet it was not expected to be a big issue.

If he had a chance to counsel Trudeau, Omer Aziz, a former adviser at the Department of Global Affairs in the Liberal government, says he would have said, “It’s going to come up and you need to make sure you know what you’re going to say.”

Before going to India, Aziz would have suggested Trudeau make a speech in support of united India and draw comparisons to separatist movements here.

Trudeau’s trip was billed as one to bolster economic and cultural connections. Because Canada’s minorities of colour are consigned to hyphenated labels and never viewed as simply Canadian, Canadian leaders end up viewing foreign policy through the lens of diasporic politics.

And so, Indo-Canadians and Sikh Canadians have come to expect images of a leader’s visit to New Delhi, the requisite visit to the Golden Temple in Amritsar, perhaps a Hindu temple or two.

But carry it too far and the symbolism of “we care” can become tiresomely reductive.

Religious and cultural observances such as a cloth on the head may be seen as a sign of respect. Wearing clothing from the host nation could be seen as a bit of charming politicking on the sidelines of trade deals and policy development.

As a main dish, overshadowing a $1-billion trade deal, it’s unpalatable. Neither Indians nor Indo-Canadians are quite so unsophisticated as to not detect being patronized.

Aziz sees this trip as evidence that governments should hire and empower more staffers of colour who understand the complexities of the world. “Literally all this was avoidable,” he said.

For all the talk of Trudeau’s diverse cabinet, behind the scenes decision makers, staffers and bureaucrats remain monochromatic.

“I think that frankly minorities, brown folks, people of colour should say this is enough,” Aziz says. “It’s time that millennials (like me) said either you’re going to share power with us or we’re going to mobilize and you’re going to suffer at the ballot box. We’re not going to be treated as anyone’s vote bank.

“We don’t need you talking down to us. We don’t need you to begin every single speech saying diversity is our strength. What we need is at that beginning point of our conversation, we need to be treated as equals, with respect. Then we can have a conversation about policy.”

Shree Paradkar writes about discrimination and identity.
You can follow her @shreeparadkar.
Copyright 2018-Torstar Syndication Services

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1 Comment

  1. I have read several articles focused on this India adventure. Personally, I’m still in contemplation over it all. This particular columnist quoted Polonius from Hamlet. I will also quote from the same play, but from Queen Gertrude to Polonius, “More matter with less art.” I would like to see more on the specific results of the visit than the spectacle of the sideshow. Ultimately, guffaws or not, we aren’t discussing what really matters.

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