Prime Minister Narendra Modi with his Canadian counterpart Justin Trudeau before their meeting at Hyderabad House in New Delhi on Friday. (Source: PTI)

Trudeau's Top Security Aide Downplays Indian Role in Controversy

(Bloomberg) -- Justin Trudeau’s national security adviser says the Indian government “definitely” wasn’t behind a theory about how an attempted murderer wound up at a reception with the Canadian prime minister in Mumbai.

Daniel Jean, in rare public testimony Monday in Ottawa, addressed the outcry over the appearance of Jaspal Atwal at the Trudeau event in February. Atwal is a one-time Sikh separatist who was convicted in British Columbia of trying to kill an Indian cabinet minister in 1986, and the Canadian prime minister is already seen by some in India as too sympathetic of the Sikh separatist cause.

Controversy exploded after an unidentified government official briefed reporters covering the trip. On Monday, Jean defended the government, identified himself as that official and said he spoke out at the time, under condition of anonymity, to correct a misinformation campaign that inflated what he called a “faux pas” into a diplomatic dispute.

“There was coordinated efforts to try to misinform, and I said that these were either private people -- it was definitely not the government of India -- and if it was people from India, they were acting in a rogue way,” Jean told lawmakers in Ottawa. The controversy erupted because of “actors that are trying to fabricate a narrative that is totally untrue,” including suggestions that Canadian security agencies knew Atwal would be at the reception or that he was part of the official delegation.

The testimony is the latest in a long-simmering saga that has plagued Trudeau since his trip, which was criticized as heavy on photo-ops in traditional Indian attire and light on official business. Opposition lawmakers have said Trudeau ordered Jean to speak to reporters to quell the controversy.

‘Unfounded Allegations’

The national security adviser said briefing journalists was his suggestion. “I made a decision to offer a background briefing to Canadian media in order to clarify facts” and “alert them to the inaccurate information being circulated.” He said he thought it would be more credible coming from him, rather than an official in Trudeau’s office, because he was “someone who is neutral.”

Jean said Canada didn’t intervene with India to lift a restriction on Atwal’s travel, and directed questions on that to the Indian government. He rebuffed “unfounded allegations” that Canada’s security agencies, and Trudeau’s office, had known about Atwal’s appearance in Mumbai. They hadn’t, he said.

Atwal had received invitations to two receptions -- one in Mumbai, and one later in New Delhi. Jean said he first got word about Atwal being on the Delhi guest list through the Canadian Security Intelligence Service on Feb. 21. Around that time, photos emerged of Atwal from the reception in Mumbai, including one where he posed with Trudeau’s wife.

Officials rescinded the invitation to the Delhi reception, and one of Trudeau’s lawmakers, Randeep Sarai, came forward to say he’d invited Atwal. Atwal, who is now in his 60s, later gave a press conference where he apologized for the ordeal and said he’d renounced the Sikh separatist cause.

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