Bangalore,India: — Prime Minister Stephen Harper said Thursday he won’t “interfere” with the political rights of Canadian Sikhs who advocate a separate state in India — even though his government firmly opposes the idea.
However, Harper indicted the Conservative government would take action if it detects that those Sikhs turn to violence to advance their cause.
At a news conference as he neared the end of his visit to India, Harper was asked if he thinks Sikh extremism is a problem in Canada and, if so, what he is doing to stop it.
The question came after Harper was dogged by the politically sensitive issue during his trip because senior leaders in the India government called on him to quell the rise of “anti-India rhetoric” in Canada.
They were referring to a small group of Sikhs who are advocating the creation of a separate state — Khalistan — in India.
“The government is completely supportive of the unity of India,” said Harper.
“The government of Canada and I believe the vast majority of Canadian people, including the vast majority of Indo-Canadians, have no desire to see the revival of old hostilities in this great country, here in India.”
Harper added that his government monitors “extreme developments – those who may embrace violence or threats of violence or terrorism.”
“We watch these things very closely and we work very closely with our partners in the government of India.”
However, the prime minister said “that obviously cannot be confused with peoples’ right in Canada to advocate a political position.
“It may be a political position that both the government of Canada and the government of India disagree with. We can’t interfere with the right of political freedom of expression.”
Harper has walked a tightrope during the trip — declaring earlier this week that Canada stands for a “united India”, but also visiting a cherished Sikh temple in the Punjab to pay his respects to Indians of that faith.
After visiting the temple on Wednesday, Harper brushed asked questions from Canadian journalists about whether there is Sikh extremism in Canada, merely saying the Indian government “knows our position.”
On Thursday morning, an Indian newspaper, the Tribune, reported that Harper had said at one point during his Punajabi visit: “We are committed not to permit any secessionist activities on our soil.”
Harper’s aides denied the report Thursday, and insisted he did not say those words.
Later in the day, when questioned at the news conference, Harper appeared keen to clarify where he stands.
During his trip, Harper met many of the Indian government’s leaders, including Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.
Singh said the countries “have similar concerns in combating terrorism, extremism and radicalism.”
Preneet Kaur, the country’s minister of state for external affairs, complained about the “revival of anti-India rhetoric in Canada”