Jaspal Atwal story becomes even more intriguing in light of Surrey's recent political history

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      Yesterday, CTV Question Period had four panelists, three of whom are veteran journalists, pontificating about the Jaspal Atwal controversy.

      Atwal was convicted of attempted murder in an assassination attempt on a Punjab cabinet minister who was visiting Vancouver Island for a wedding in 1986.

      None of the CTV Question Period panelists was willing to endorse the claim of Justin Trudeau's national security adviser that the government of India played a role in Atwal appearing on the guest list at the Canadian High Commission.

      The strongest refutation of India's involvement came from Robert Fife, a former CTV Question Period host who works at the Globe and Mail.

      The government of India has also rejected that assertion.

      That's the conventional view of the central Canadian media, but those commentators have not probed very deeply into recent political history in Surrey, B.C.

      Back in 1986 Atwal was one of four men who ambushed the cabinet minister, Malkiat Singh Sidhu, on a gravel road near the isolated community of Gold River. It's not clear how these would-be assassins knew that Sidhu would be on that road at that time.

      After Atwal emerged from prison, he recanted his youthful passion for the creation of an independent Sikh homeland in Punjab.

      He went on to head a Surrey-based company called Media Waves Communications, which purports to be the largest Indian Internet radio station in Canada.

      While Internet radio is not normally a lucrative business, it has offered Atwal an opportunity to meet Canadian politicians from many parties.

      Atwal has said that among those he's supported in the past is Jinny Sims, the former NDP MP for Newton-North Delta.

      She's the current MLA for Surrey-Panorama and NDP minister of citizens' services. Sims told Postmedia that he doesn't know Atwal well.

      Another Surrey politician, Liberal MP Randeep Sarai, told the Surrey Now-Leader that he forwarded Atwal's name to attend the event at the Canadian High Commission in India.

      But Sarai denied "inviting him", noting that Atwal is a "media personality".

      "We did go on his radio pre-election, kind of during the writ period time," the Surrey Centre Liberal MP told reporter Tom Zytaruk. "Afterwards I’ve been on it a couple of times, he’s been around socially in the community here in Surrey for years now. I’ve seen him around but I don’t have anything beyond socially when we see him at media events or at public events, I don’t have any other relationship with him.”

      Jaspal Atwal was photographed with Randeep Sarai and Sukh Dhaliwal in 2015.
      Media Waves Communications Facebook

      Sarai battled Dhaliwal for Liberal nomination

      There's an interesting back story to Sarai.

      He stepped forward to challenge Sukh Dhaliwal, a former two-term Liberal MP, in an epic Liberal nomination fight in Surrey-Newton in 2014 when Sims was the MP.

      It's worth noting that in several other winnable ridings, the Liberal party avoided high-profile nomination battles.

      That's because candidates who had previously expressed interest ended up not putting their names forward. There were uncontested Liberal nominations on the North Shore and in Vancouver Granville.

      A former Liberal candidate, Wendy Yuan, was prevented from seeking the nomination in Steveston-Richmond East. Businessman Barj Dhahan withdrew his name from consideration in Vancouver South.

      But in Surrey-Newton, Trudeau was willing to let Dhaliwal and Sarai slug it out for the right to be the party's standard-bearer.

      At the time, the Liberals were saying that 23,000 people had signed up as members in the riding.

      In 2011 Sims captured the seat with just over one-third of the votes.

      Sims was born in Punjab, moved to the United Kingdom at the age of nine, and is strongly secular. In 2014 she issued a statement about atrocities committed against Sikhs in India in 1984 in the wake of former prime minister Indira Gandhi's assassination.

      But she never went as far in this regard as Dhaliwal, who brought a petition before Parliament in 2010 seeking to have the attacks on Sikhs declared a "genocide".

      Many in the Sikh community believe that high-ranking members of Ghandhi's Congress party directed mobs to kill Sikhs in retaliation for Gandhi's Sikh bodyguards killing her. But the Stephen Harper government declared that there wasn't enough evidence to support claims of genocide.

      Even Dhaliwal's own party leader at the time, Michael Ignatieff, opposed the use of the word "genocide" to describe what happened in India in November 1984. 

      One of India's largest newspapers, the Hindustan Times, has since reported that moderates were accusing Dhaliwal of pandering to Sikh fundamentalists on this issue. And moderates were dismayed by the outcome of the 2015 Canadian election, according to the Indian newspaper.

      Therefore, it's a safe bet to assume that the government of India would likely have preferred Sims in any federal electoral contest against Dhaliwal.

      Protesters gathered in B.C. to object to Indian prime minister Narendra Modi's visit in 2015.
      Carlito Pablo

      Narendra Modi visited Vancouver in 2015

      It's not known what role, if any, Atwal may have played in Sarai's unsuccessful attempt to win the Liberal nomination in Surrey-Newton and knock Dhaliwal out of federal politics.

      If the pro-India lobby had a goal of re-electing Sims in Surrey-Newton, it would have made sense to back Sarai's candidacy for the Surrey-Newton nomination.

      That's because he had far less name recognition than Dhaliwal, who had twice been elected and who narrowly lost by 903 votes in 2011.

      Sarai also had previous trouble with the Law Society of B.C., increasing his vulnerability as a political candidate.

      Add it all up and in comparison to Dhaliwal, Sarai would have been a weaker opponent for Sims, notwithstanding Dhaliwal's previous tax trouble.

      When Dhaliwal won the nomination, the Conservatives recruited a high-profile, turban-wearing broadcaster, Harpreet Singh, who hadn't been associated with the right-wing party in the past. 

      Some in the Sikh community saw this as an attempt by the pro-India lobby to split the vote among more religious Sikhs to enable the secular Sims to retain her seat. This allegation has never been proven.

      In the end, Dhaliwal was elected in the Trudeau landslide of 2015.

      Sarai was given the consolation prize of the Surrey Centre Liberal nomination and he, too, was elected as an MP.

      Harpreet Singh went back to hosting his program on Joytv and Sims went on to become an NDP provincial cabinet minister.

      Then for reasons that remain unclear, Sarai brought Atwal's name forward to be a guest at a dinner in Delhi, which seriously embarrassed Trudeau.

      Of course, anyone who suggests that the Indian government might be meddling in Surrey politics is going to be dismissed as a loopy conspiracy theorist by the central Canadian media.

      This is the case even though Indian prime minister Narendra Modi made a high-profile visit to the Laxmi Narayan Hindu temple in Surrey during an official state visit to Canada in April 2015.

      And which federal riding is home to this temple? Surrey-Newton, of course.

      Modi's visit occurred days before the annual Vaisakhi celebration in Surrey.

      That's when support for an independent Sikh nation is regularly put on display during a parade attended by hundreds of thousands of people.

      The timing of Modi's visit to Surrey was no doubt designed to whip up patriotism for India in advance of Vaisakhi.

      In the midst of all of this, Jaspal Atwal was enmeshed in Liberal party politics in Surrey.

      What a strange series of coincidences.