Prime Minister Justin Trudeau meets with Prime Minister of India Narendra Modi at Hyderabad House in New Delhi, India on Friday, Feb. 23, 2018. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

Atwal fiasco dogs Trudeau; PM pledges a ‘conversation’ with MP responsible

Trudeau is being peppered with questions about the lingering controversy

Justin Trudeau says he will sit down next week with the Liberal MP responsible for putting a failed assassin on the guest list for two high-profile receptions with the prime minister.

Trudeau is being peppered with questions about the lingering controversy, but is only saying that he’ll meet next week with Liberal MP Randeep Sarai.

Related: B.C. MP apologizes for inviting criminal to Trudeau reception

Sarai has taken full responsibility for the fact that Jaspal Atwal — convicted in the 1980s of attempting to kill an Indian cabinet minister who was travelling in Canada — was invited to the two events, including one where he was photographed alongside Trudeau’s wife, Sophie Gregoire Trudeau.

Earlier today, in a telephone briefing arranged by the Prime Minister’s Office, a government official suggested that Atwal’s presence was linked to factions within the Indian government who refuse to believe there is no risk posed to a united India by Sikh separatists living abroad.

The official, speaking on condition of anonymity, says those factions are trying to prevent Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government from getting too cosy with foreign governments they believe want to undermine a united India.

Trudeau spent much of his news conference trying to counter the persistent narrative that the trip has gone badly, insisting that the Canadian delegation has been well received throughout the week and that relations between the two countries remain strong.

Whatever success Trudeau has enjoyed in India, however, has been overshadowed by the Atwal controversy.

The situation was unacceptable; this individual never should have been invited,” Trudeau told the news conference. “The MP responsible has taken responsibility, and I will be having a conversation with that MP in Canada next week.”

During today’s telephone briefing, reporters were told Canadian security officials received a tip from intelligence sources within Canada on Wednesday morning that Atwal had been at a reception in Mumbai with the prime minister Tuesday evening.

Canadian officials looked into the matter as soon as they got the tip, and confirmed Atwal’s identity and presence at the Mumbai reception. They also confirmed that he was on the guest list for an event with Trudeau at the High Commissioner’s residence Thursday night in New Delhi.

The official said Atwal has, since his conviction, been on a list of people banned by India from getting a visa to visit the country because of their ties to Sikh separatist and extremist groups but that he was suddenly removed from that blacklist last summer — long before Trudeau’s trip was planned.

Related: Trudeau reiterates denial of Sikh separatists in cabinet, condemns extremism

Canada played no part in getting Atwal off the blacklist or getting him a visa to visit India, said the official.

He was never part of the official delegation.

The official said Atwal poses no security risk and no longer has any known ties to extremist causes. His invitation was withdrawn, however, because of the diplomatic nightmare it posed to Trudeau, who has spent much of this trip trying to assure the Indian government that Canada does not support Sikh separatism and will do whatever it can to rout out extremist elements if there is any evidence they exist.

The official said it was “very interesting” to Canada that, after days of Trudeau and other cabinet ministers insisting the Canadian government supports a united India, this issue suddenly blew up. Many incorrect facts were fed to various media outlets to push the story, the official said.

The tip to some media that the RCMP in Surrey, B.C. knew about Atwal’s invitation before the trip started and warned the prime minister’s office is completely false, he said. The first anyone in the Canadian government heard about it was from intelligence sources the morning after the Mumbai reception, he added.

He said if the Surrey RCMP had received such a tip it would not have gone to the PMO but rather to RCMP headquarters, who would have dealt with the investigation.

The official said Atwal has close ties to some Indian diplomats in Vancouver, which may be the route he used to get off the blacklist, but said it is for the Indian government to explain how that happened.

There still remain many questions that the government hasn’t answered, including how Sarai was involved and how it came to be that Sarai asked for Atwal to be added to the guest list at both events.

After it was confirmed Atwal had been on the guest lists, Sarai issued a statement saying it was his choice and his alone to include Atwal, and that he realizes now he exercised poor judgement in doing so. Sarai has not been available for interviews to further explain how the invitations were issued.

The government official said guest lists for receptions such as those in India are not vetted individually for security. Those who issue the invites are expected to do their own due diligence to ensure their own guests are safe.

The official said Canada is not suggesting Atwal’s presence was engineered by the official Indian government, but by certain people within it.

All of this comes amid a backdrop of meetings in New Delhi today between Trudeau and Modi, who finalized a framework agreement to work against terrorism and extremist elements. Modi said at a news conference with Trudeau this afternoon that both countries are at risk from those who would use religion to divide people.

There has been criticism both in India and Canada throughout the week in India that Modi was snubbing Trudeau because of concerns about Canada’s tolerance level for Sikh separatists. The fact Modi sent a junior minister to the airport to greet Trudeau, and the lack of any public comment welcoming Trudeau until the evening before Trudeau’s meetings with him were both used as evidence Modi was trying to make Trudeau sweat.

Modi greeted Trudeau at the presidential palace in Delhi with his signature bear hug. He was playful with Trudeau’s children and expressed warmth and happiness about Trudeau’s visit today.

The Canadian Press

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