Who is Jaspal Atwal? Man at centre of controversy over Trudeau’s India trip remains a political mystery
Senior Canadian officials say Atwal — once convicted of attempted murder of an Indian cabinet minister — was removed from the guest list of a reception with Trudeau in India because he was politically controversial, not because he was a security threat.
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OTTAWA—Jaspal Atwal, a once-convicted would-be assassin of an Indian cabinet minister, had his invitation to a reception for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau yanked because he was politically controversial, not because he was deemed a security threat, senior officials say.
And yet today, Atwal remains a man of political mystery.
Is he a reformed terrorist? A Liberal party supporter? An equal-opportunity political fixer for a B.C. radio station who has posed with Conservatives and NDP politicians alike?
Those questions remain unanswered days after Atwal’s surprise presence at a prime ministerial event in Mumbai led to his invitation to a second reception being withdrawn — all of it kicking off an international controversy and derailing Trudeau’s visit to India.
A senior government official told the Star the prime minister did not speak Monday to Randeep Sarai, the B.C. Liberal MP who put Atwal on the guest list for the event in India.
Trudeau was not in the Commons, where his public safety minister, Ralph Goodale, deflected a barrage of questions from Conservatives demanding “proof” of suggestions in some media reports that the Liberal government had blamed the Indian government for trying to “sabotage” the Trudeau visit.
When the Star had asked those same questions last week of a senior Canadian official who spoke on condition of anonymity, the answer was: “I want to be very clear: I am not saying that the government of India set us up.”
However the official did suggest that there are “people in India” who would benefit from fuelling the controversy over whether the Trudeau government is “complacent on terrorism” — an allegation the Liberal government flatly denies.
Atwal’s name was removed several months ago by the Indian government from its own blacklist of inadmissible persons, as the Indian government confirmed to Indian media over the weekend. (That alone is a mystery, given that India has even declined to give federal NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh a visa.)
Atwal reportedly served five years of a 20-year prison sentence after being convicted of attempting to kill Indian cabinet minister Malkiat Singh Sidhu during a visit to Vancouver Island in 1986. According to the Vancouver Sun, Atwal was also charged but acquitted in the 1985 beating of Ujjal Dosanjh, a vocal opponent of Sikh extremism who later became a federal cabinet minister. Atwal was later convicted as part of an auto insurance fraud scheme.
Yet despite Atwal’s past, the Canadian official made clear last week the invitation to the reception in India was revoked “not because we felt an imminent threat, even security threat, (but) because we felt that it was not appropriate for somebody with that type of background … to be on the invitation list of a reception which is celebrating the visit of our prime minister and the bilateral relationship with India.”
So just who is Jaspal Atwal?
He told The Canadian Press he has helped politicians from different parties both federally and provincially. Records show he has made only one $500 donation, in 2011, to a federal Liberal candidate in B.C.
Atwal is a former member of the Liberal riding association in Fleetwood—Port Kells, in the Vancouver suburbs, and says he is a friend of the prime minister — a claim the Trudeau government says is “nonsense.”
A friend of Atwal told the Star he has political contacts across all parties. Photos showing Atwal with Liberal figures — including Sarai, the MP who took responsibility for putting Atwal’s name on the guest list for the event — are posted on the Facebook page of Media Waves, an Indian community radio station based in Surrey, B.C. There are photos of him with Trudeau and Sukh Dhaliwal, another Liberal MP from B.C.’s Lower Mainland. On Atwal’s personal Facebook page, there are photos of him with hockey star Wayne Gretzky, former Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff, and a long-haired Trudeau before he was prime minister.
Media Waves CEO Ashiana Khan told the Star on Monday that she has known Atwal for about 20 years. He’s keenly interested in politics, she said, and often contacts the station to recommend stories and suggest people for interviews. Atwal introduced her to B.C. New Democrat MLA Jinny Sims, a Punjabi-Canadian who was an MP in the last Parliament.
Khan said Atwal is notorious for taking pictures with well-known people, whether it’s Bollywood stars or politicians. She said he has told her that he has photos of himself with former NDP leader Jack Layton and former Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper, for instance, and that he visited MPs on Parliament Hill in 2014. Atwal did not return the Star’s calls seeking to verify those claims.
Khan said she spoke with Atwal earlier Monday, and he explained to her that he was in India this month for a “health visit” when he was invited to a reception where he was photographed with Sophie Grégoire Trudeau, the prime minister’s wife, and with Canada’s infrastructure minister, Amarjeet Sohi.
Asked about Atwal’s criminal past, Khan said many young people from Punjab were scarred by events in India in the 1980s — especially anti-Sikh massacres in 1984 that the Ontario legislature has labelled “genocide.”
“At that time, Jaspal was a youth. All the Punjabis were quite alarmed. They were very angry,” Khan said. “With that anger and with that frustration, a lot of them made mistakes, a lot of them did things which they were not supposed to do. And Jaspal Atwal was one of them who was brainwashed with what happened there … It was a big mistake, which he paid for.”
Since then he has tried to “improve himself,” Khan said, pointing to his ability to obtain a visa to visit India. “I guess that’s what the Indian government has seen,” she said.
Atwal told The Canadian Press he does not support Sikh separatist organizations and that he has not been a member of the International Sikh Youth Federation, now banned as a terrorist group.