Amarinder Versus Sajjan

File photo of Canadian Minister for National Defense Sajjan Harjit giving an address at the U.N. Peacekeeping Defense Ministerial at Lancaster House in London, Sept. 8, 2016. (Stefan Rousseau/AFP/Getty Images)

CHANDIGARH — One is Canada's defense minister and the other is the chief minister of a state (Punjab) that has strong connections with the North American country.

Both are politicians of standing and share a military background, too. One has been a frontline trooper in war-ravaged Afghanistan as a lieutenant colonel in the Canadian Army; the other has seen war from close quarters as a captain in the Indian Army.

But the forthcoming visit of Canadian Defense Minister Harjit Sajjan to Punjab, the land of his birth, has led to a political war of sorts with Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh.

Singh has gone on record to say that Sajjan is a "Khalistani sympathizer" and that they will not meet during the latter's visit to Punjab starting this week. Even though there is no direct proof of Sajjan's links to Khalistani elements, Singh has stuck to his guns.

Singh's stand, besides the protocol issues involved with the visiting Canadian defense minister, has stirred up a political storm in Punjab – a state which has such strong connections with Canada through its non-resident Indians settled there that the country is, in a lighter vein, referred to as Punjab's 23rd district.

The background of Singh's rather hard stand on Sajjan dates to as recently as April last year when his visit to that country was scuttled at the last minute after the Canadian authorities denied Singh permission to visit. Singh was to address rallies and meet with Punjabi NRIs in Canada, who are an influential and cash-rich group, in the run-up to the Punjab assembly elections.

A hurt Singh had shot off a letter to Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, protesting the move. Singh had later even refused to meet the Canadian High Commissioner in India.

Singh, who became chief minister of Punjab for a second time last month, feels that pro-Khalistan political leaders of Punjabi origin, including Sajjan, secretly backed the move by radical elements to deny him entry into Canada.

While the Canadian authorities did not let Singh in on the grounds that political activity was not allowed, leaders of the Shiromani Akali Dal and Aam Aadmi Party openly campaigned within the NRI community in Canada.

The Punjab chief minister has, however, said that Sajjan will get all the security and protocol in the state that has to be provided to a dignitary of his stature.

Sajjan, 46, otherwise has strong credentials for visiting Punjab. His parents and family lived in Punjab's Hoshiarpur district before migrating to Canada in 1976. He is the first Sikh to become the defense minister of another country.

During his visit to Amritsar, Jalandhar, Hoshiarpur and Chandigarh, Sajjan won't essentially miss meeting Singh as political and religious leaders in Punjab will welcome him with open arms.

The controversy over his visit to Punjab was quite avoidable had Singh not taken a stand. After all, political leaders do hobnob with all kinds of elements in public life.

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