File photo by THE CANADIAN PRESS Prime Minister Justin Trudeau takes part in the Young Changemakers Conclave 2018 in New Delhi, India on Saturday.

PM says he stands by official who suggested Indian factions sabotaged trip

OTTAWA — Justin Trudeau is standing by a senior government official who suggested factions within the Indian government were involved in sabotaging the prime minister’s visit to India last week.

During his first question period since arriving back in Canada, opposition MPs grilled the prime minister Tuesday about invitations issued to Jaspal Atwal — a B.C. Sikh convicted of attempting to assassinate an Indian cabinet minister in 1986 — to attend two events with the prime minister in India.

In a background briefing arranged by the Prime Minister’s Office, a government official last week suggested that Atwal’s presence was arranged by factions within the Indian government who want to prevent Prime Minister Narendra Modi from getting too cosy with a foreign government they believe is not committed to a united India.

Conservatives identified the official as Trudeau’s national security adviser, Daniel Jean, and they pressed Trudeau to say whether he agrees with Jean’s “conspiracy theory.”

“A senior security official made these allegations. Does the prime minister agree or disavow those allegations?” asked Opposition Leader Andrew Scheer.

Trudeau defended the official as a member of the professional, non-partisan public service that provides quality advice. He accused the previous Conservative government of using the public service for partisan ends, saying “they torqued the public service every possible way they could.”

“And they do not understand that our professional, non-partisan public service does high quality work. And when one of our top diplomats and security officials says something to Canadians, it’s because they know it to be true.”

Conservative MPs pressed Trudeau to provide evidence to back the assertion, but it was left to Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale to field those questions.

“Before our prime minister destroys our relationship with our ally, the government and country of India, will he please tell this House what proof he has of that allegation?” asked Tory MP Candice Bergen.

Goodale said Bergen was providing “her interpretation of events” and said “her insinuations and her accusations are false.”

New Democrat MP Charlie Angus asserted that Atwal — who has been photographed over the years posing with various Liberal MPs, ministers and leaders, including Trudeau himself — turned up on the trip because his presence was “useful” to local Liberals back in Canada. And he accused Trudeau of using a senior civil servant to “spin a conspiracy theory that somehow the Indian government is trying to make the Liberals look bad.”

“What was the prime minister thinking, putting the interests of the Liberal machine ahead of national security, international relations and Canada’s reputation?” Angus demanded.

Atwal, a one-time member of a Sikh separatist group that is banned in Canada and India as a terrorist organization, was convicted of attempting to kill Indian cabinet minister Malkiat Singh Sidhu on Vancouver Island in 1986.

He was also charged, but not convicted, in connection with a 1985 attack on Ujjal Dosanjh, a staunch opponent of the Sikh separatist movement, who later became B.C. premier and a federal Liberal cabinet minister.

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