Justin Trudeau, Canada’s prime minister, made much of appointing four Sikhs to his 30-person cabinet in 2015, boasting he had more than his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi. Singling out four of the 500,000 Canadian adherents to a religion that originated in the Punjab region of India about 500 years ago fits with Mr Trudeau’s constant refrain that Canada’s diversity is a source of strength. Yet it can lead to unexpected problems, as Harjit Sajjan, the defence minister (and a Sikh), discovered during a recent government mission to India, his country of birth.

Canada has long been keen to reduce its trade dependence on America and has identified China, India and Japan as promising markets. Mr Sajjan was dispatched to talk to the Indians about defence, security and investment last month. But even before he set foot in the country the fact that he was a Sikh from Canada became an issue. Amarinder Singh, chief minister of Punjab state, accused Mr Sajjan and his fellow Sikh cabinet ministers of favouring an independent state for Sikhs called Khalistan. The majority of Sikhs in India live in Punjab.  Mr Singh declared he would not meet with Mr Sajjan, although it is not clear a meeting was requested. 

Sikhs in Canada, who account for about 1.4% of the population, are divided on the question of Khalistan. At times this disagreement has led to violence. Inderjit Singh Reyat, the only person convicted of the Air India bombing in 1985, in which 331 people died, was a Canada-based supporter of Khalistan. Annual parades to celebrate Vaisakhi divide those who believe it marks the Punjabi new year and those who see it as a commemoration of the 1699 founding of Khalsa (the Sikh community) and thus an opportunity to agitate for Khalistan. The Indian government keeps a sharp eye on diaspora events and has complained in the past that people it considers terrorists are glorified as martyrs at some parades. So too have non-Sikh Canadian politicians who were assured a particular parade would be apolitical only to find themselves alongside controversial floats. 

Mr Sajjan has been dogged by accusations that he is a Khalistani sympathiser since he entered politics in 2014 after a career as a police officer and in the military. His accusers note that his father, Kundan Singh Sajjan, was a senior official in the World Sikh Organisation, founded in 1984 to pursue a Sikh state, and that the organisation backed Mr Sajjan in the contest for the Liberal party nomination. Mr Sajjan denied the allegations at the time and again last month when Punjab’s chief minister made it an issue. “It does hurt,” he told an Indian interviewer during the visit.

Mr Sajjan suggested that Mr Singh was playing politics. Punjab’s chief minister did seem to be smarting from having his request to visit Canada and speak at political rallies last year turned down. But his accusations cast a shadow on the visit and made it trickier for Mr Sajjan to conduct than it would have been for a non-Sikh cabinet minister. On the issue of Khalistan at least he did not put a foot wrong, visiting the village he came from in Punjab and the temple at Amritsar, a holy place for Sikhs, without incident.

The visit would have been a diplomatic triumph—were it not for the comments Mr Sajjan made to an Indian audience that exaggerated the role he played while a member of the Canadian military in Afghanistan. Last week he was forced to make a formal statement in the Canadian parliament to apologise for his boasts. Having avoided the religious potholes, he stepped into a secular one.