ANANDPUR SAHIB, INDIA—Prime Minister Stephen Harper paid a politically charged visit to a Sikh holy site, a trip that holds significance for Canada’s Indo-Canadian community but one that risks riling his Indian hosts.
Harper came to the Punjab region in northern India on Wednesday just a day after Indian politicians pointedly told the prime minister of their government’s worries about Sikh extremism in Canada.
But the prime minister appeared undeterred by the Indian cautions as he used an afternoon visit to the Punjab to publicly show his support for the Sikh community.
Harper arrived in the regional capital of Chandigarh shortly after noon and then flew by helicopter north to this town, near the Himalayan foothills.
The prime minister paid a visit with the Punjab governor to reaffirm the “strong relationship that exists between Canada and the State of Punjab,” Harper’s office said in a statement.
Harper was then joined by his wife, Laureen, and visited the Gurdwara Sri Keshgarh Sahib, a temple that ranks as among the holiest of Sikh religious sites.
With shoes and socks doffed and their heads covered with scarves, Harper and his wife toured the temple, visiting with community members. He was also joined by several members of the Conservative caucus, including Parm Gill and Tim Uppal.
Finally, he toured the Khalsa Heritage Centre, a stunning museum that features soaring rooflines designed by Canadian architect Moshe Safdie. The centre profiles the history and culture of the Punjab.
Local community member B.S Balli said Harper’s visit was a significant and welcome show of respect for the Sikh religion.
He said Sikhs were “very happy” to play host to Harper’s high-profile visit.
“They feel elevated by his (the prime minister’s) visit over here,” Balli told reporters.
“It’s about humanity. Brotherhood.”
He sidestepped the question of whether he thought Harper’s visit might be politically motivated to win the favour of Canada’s Sikh population, estimated at about 500,000.
“I obviously can’t say this is a political visit,” Balli said.
“The prime minister has come to view that very great marvelous heritage complex and he has paid his respects at this religious place. He has a regard for the Sikh sentiments everywhere. All the Sikhs welcome his visit,” Balli said.
Just a day before, the Indian government was raising a flag about Sikh’s separatist ambitions and the extremism they claim is on the upswing in Canada. In a meeting with Harper, Preneet Kaur, Minister of State of External Affairs, said the “revival of anti-India rhetoric” in Canada was of “great concern.”
At the heart of the Indian worries is support in Canada for a separatist Sikh state in India, known as Khalistan in the Punjab.
For Harper, the last two days have been a balancing act, as he first assured Indian leaders that Canada favoured a united India, and then the next day, making a public display of support for the Sikh community.
He even brought along Canadian business leaders who have joined him on his extended visit in a pointed attempt to not just boost trade with India, but the Punjab region in particular.
Later, the prime minister refused to comment when asked whether he shared the Indian government’s concerns about Sikh extremism in Canada.
“I think the Indian government knows about (our) position. We’re aware of the challenges and we’ll keep working on those,” he said.
Still, there were some obvious sensitivities with the visit as officials with the Prime Minister’s Office actively frustrated attempts by Canadian reporters to attend Harper’s Gurdwara visit. At first they claimed narrow streets couldn’t accommodate buses carrying the media contingent. The streets in fact were wide and a parking lot outside the temple accommodated other buses that had brought visitors for Harper’s visit.
Then they claimed the temple was a long distance away even though it was a 10-minute walk.
Finally they refused to provide directions, leaving reporters on their own to find it.
Andrew MacDougall, Harper’s director of communications, later apologized to reporters for what he called “unacceptable” logistical problems.