Thanks to influential diaspora, world leaders converge on Golden Temple

Chandigarh: When Canada’s young Prime Minister Justin Trudeau visits the Golden Temple complex, which is home to the holiest of Sikh shrines, next month, he will carry a political message to a big constituency back home.

With a big Punjabi, especially Sikh, population settled in countries like Canada, Britain and the United States, a visit to the temple by leaders from these countries is becoming a must on their travel itinerary in India.

Trudeau is not the first top Canadian leader to visit the shrine.

Earlier, then Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper visited the Golden Temple in November 2009. He offered prayers and spent nearly an hour inside the complex. Harper deviated from his itinerary to make sure he visited Amritsar.

Harper followed it up with a visit to Takht Keshgarh Sahib at Anandpur Sahib, the second-most important shrine for Sikh religion and the birth place of the Khalsa Panth (April 1699; founded by the 10th Sikh master, Guru Gobind Singh), in November 2012.

Premiers (equivalent to a Chief Minister) of Canadian provinces of British Columbia and Ontario, federal ministers, Members of Parliament (MPs) and other leaders have visited Sikh shrines in Punjab in the past.

The Canadian government has recognised Punjabi an official language.

“Countries like United States, Britain and Canada have big populations of migrants from Punjab, especially Sikhs, settled there. Many of them have done well in these countries and carry political clout over there,” Rashpal Singh, an educationist based in Amritsar, told IANS.

Prime Minister David Cameron became the first British Prime Minister to visit the Golden Temple in February 2013. In October 1997, the British monarch, Queen Elizabeth, and her husband, Prince Phillip, visited the Golden Temple.

London Mayor Sadiq Khan visited the shrine as recently as December 2017. Ken Livingstone visited the shrine in November 2007 when he was the London Mayor.

US President Barack Obama came close to visiting the Golden Temple in October 2010 during his visit to India. His proposed visit ran into a controversy over the headgear he would wear to enter the shrine. Under Sikh religious traditions, every devotee to the shrine has to keep his head covered.

Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani had visited the Golden Temple in December 2016 along with Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Modi became the first Prime Minister to serve devotees “langar” (community food) at the Golden Temple.

Leaders from several other countries have visited the Golden Temple complex that houses the Harmandir Sahib, Sikhism’s holiest shrine that gets millions of visitors annually. The numbers cross 100,000 on weekends and holidays.

Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh had, in April 2016, shot off an angry letter to Trudeau, protesting against the Canadian government’s denial of permission for his interactive meetings with Punjabis in the cities of Toronto and Vancouver. He was forced to cancel his political rallies following objections raised by Sikh hardliners with the Canadian government.

An annoyed Amarinder had publicly refused to meet Canada’s first Sikh Defence Minister, Harjit Singh Sajjan, when he visited Punjab last April. It is not certain if Amarinder will play host when Trudeau visits Amritsar next month.