India summons Canada envoy as row deepens over Trudeau's protest remarks

By Leyland Cecco

India has summoned Canada’s top diplomat to protest at comments by Justin Trudeau on recent mass protests by farmers in the country. Indian officials warned that continued “interference” in domestic affairs could harm relations between the two countries.

Hundreds of thousands of farmers have descended on the Indian capital, setting up sprawling camps blocking entry into Delhi, as anger mounts over new agricultural laws many fear will damage their livelihoods.

Earlier this week, police used water cannon and teargas to disperse demonstrators – prompting expressions of concern from Canada’s prime minister.

Speaking virtually to members of the Indian community in Canada to mark the 551st birth anniversary of Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism, Trudeau called images of the clashes “concerning”and that Canada would “always be there to defend the rights of peaceful protest”.

Indian officials bristled at Trudeau’s remarks, the first from a world leader on the growing protests. On Tuesday, the ministry of external affairs said the Canadian leader was “ill-informed” about the nature of the protests.

“Such comments are unwarranted, especially when pertaining to the internal affairs of a democratic country. It is also best that diplomatic conversations are not misrepresented for political purposes,” said spokesperson Shri Anurag Srivastava.

In recent days, a number of political leaders in the United States, the UK and Australia have since criticized prime minister Narendra Modi’s handling of the growing crisis.

On Friday, India escalated its frustration, summoning Canada’s top diplomat in the country over the “unacceptable interference in our internal affairs”– and warning further actions from Trudeau could have consequences for the relationship between the two countries.

“Such actions, if continued, would have a seriously damaging impact on ties between India and Canada,” the external affairs ministry said in a statement.

With its large Sikh diaspora, Canada has increasingly become a target for Indian leaders who fear the creation of an independent Sikh state in India.

The issue hung over much of Trudeau’s 2018 visit to India. Hoping to announce a number of new trade agreements and investments, the prime minister was instead largely ignored by Modi’s government.

In its comments on Friday, India drew a line between Trudeau’s remarks and its worries over Sikh nationalists in Canada, saying the prime minister had “encouraged gatherings of extremist activities in front of our High Commission and Consulates in Canada”, calling on the government to protect its staff and refrain from comments that “legitimize extremist activism”.

Farmers outside of Delhi have announced they have no intention of leaving. Protest leaders have met with government officials over the last two days for negotiations, but no agreements have been made.