Indian authorities last week used tear gas on peaceful protesters rallying against new agriculture laws, in a move Trudeau called ‘concerning’

While Indian-Canadians have praised his remarks, others accuse him of ‘pandering’ to Sikh voters and supporters of the Khalistani separatist movement

Canadian Prime Minister

’s remarks on

’s handling of farmers’ protests have sparked debate, with politicians in the South Asian country criticising him for meddling in their internal affairs, but Sikh-Canadians praising the leader for raising the issue.

Growers from India’s northern farming states, mostly Sikhs from Punjab, have been camped outside New Delhi for a week, demonstrating against laws they fear could pave the way for the government to stop buying grain at guaranteed prices, leaving them at the mercy of private buyers.

Indian authorities last week used tear gas and water cannons to disperse the peaceful protests, a development Trudeau on Monday called “concerning”.

“Canada will always be there to defend the right of peaceful protest,” he said during an address to the Indian Sikh diaspora on the 551st birth anniversary of the religious leader Guru Nanak Dev.

New Delhi on Tuesday called the remarks “ill-informed” and “unwarranted”, and suggested Trudeau was trying to win over Sikh voters in Canada.

Canada is home to some 700,000 Sikhs, many of whom have been following the escalating protests with concern.

Dozens of South Asians and other Canadian citizens marched to protest India’s treatment of the farmers earlier this week, while more gatherings will take place in British Columbia, Prince Edward Island and Ontario this weekend.

The World Sikh Organization of Canada called the “brutal tactics” used by Indian government to deal with the peaceful protests “reprehensible”.

Jatinder Singh, the Canada national director for non-profit organisation Khalsa Aid, said

“A large number of people of Indian origin in Canada have families and friends among those protesting farmers, so they are concerned about the high-handedness of the Indian government,” Singh said in a phone interview from British Columbia.

Some social media users noted Indian Prime Minister

himself could be accused of “interference” in another country’s affairs, highlighting

he used in 2019 to endorse US President

’s campaign.

“Modi coined a slogan, ‘Abki baar, Trump Sarkar (this time, a Trump government)’,” sociologist Paramjit Singh Judge said on Wednesday.

“Is this not interference in another country’s elections?” he questioned, adding that the world was watching India’s “undemocratic” ways of dealing with the protesters.

Former diplomat Shashishekhar M Gavai said Trudeau’s comments on the farmers’ protest likely arose out of “domestic political expediency” instead of international humanitarian concern.

Prakash said Trudeau was “pandering” to his Sikh voter base. “Trudeau was addressing predominantly a Punjabi [Sikh] community; one has to be a blind not to see the political angle to it.”

Sikhs, who first arrived in Canada in the 1890s, have made visible marks in politics over the past two decades. About 18 Sikhs were voted to the Canadian parliament in 2018. This list includes parliamentarians from Trudeau’s ruling Liberal Party, including Navdeep Singh Bains, Bardish Chagger and Harjit Sajjan, who all recently expressed their concern over India’s manner of dealing with the farmers’ protests.

An MP from the opposition New Democratic Party, Gurratan Singh, who represents Ontario’s Brampton East, also recently called on his fellow politicians to stand with protesters and call out India’s treatment of its citizens.

Soon after reports of protests in Canada and Trudeau’s comments started trending on Twitter, Indian social media users said the North American country was being hypocritical of supporting Indian farmers, despite having challenged India’s farm subsidies at the World Trade Organization (WTO).

Some also linked Trudeau’s comments on Monday with his support for the Khalistani movement led by Indian Sikhs for a separate sovereign state.

One user on Twitter said Trudeau was “guided” by the Khalistanis, while another person claimed he had a big vote bank of Khalistani supporters and did not have any “real sentiments” for farmers.

Prakash, the former diplomat, said that it was “well-known” that many supporters of the Khalistani movement were supporters of Trudeau. “They provide him financial support for his elections and even foot soldiers run door-to-door campaigns for him,” he said.

India’s relationship with Trudeau has been tense in recent years. New Delhi did not give any royal welcome to Trudeau during his visit to India in 2018. Even though Modi had photo sessions with Trudeau, the federal government accorded him a “lukewarm reception” because of his alleged support of Khalistani groups in Canada.

, a Sikh separatist who was accused of attempting to murder a former cabinet minister, was part of Trudeau’s official event list.

Prakash, who called Trudeau’s 2018 visit to India “disastrous” said the leader’s “focused more on costumes and bhangra [folk dance]” than diplomacy during his trip.

Meanwhile, the Indian government will on Thursday meet farming representatives for another round of discussions after protest leaders on Tuesday rejected an initial offer by officials to set up a panel to look into their demands, said federal Agriculture Minister Narendra Singh Tomar.

“The protest will continue like this if the government doesn’t repeal the three laws,” said Darshan Pal, a senior leader of the Krantikari Kisan Union from the northern state of Punjab. “We demand that the government should call a special parliament session to repeal the laws.”

Pal said the protests, currently centred around the Indian capital, would spread across the country if the farmers’ views were not heard.

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