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Mystery of missing consul-general

Ottawa, Sept. 10: A bold experiment in engaging persons of Indian origin (PIOs) and non-resident Indians (NRIs) in deepening relations with India has left a lot of red faces in Canada and raised eyebrows in South Block.

A fortnight before external affairs minister Natwar Singh arrives here on a visit, which holds lot of promise for bilateral relations, Canadian media and this country’s political establishment are going to town over the curious saga of Bhupinder Singh Liddar’s appointment as Ottawa’s consul-general in Chandigarh.

Liddar, a Kenya-born Canadian of Indian origin, was appointed as Canada’s consul-general in its newly-created consulate in Chandigarh in October 2003.

Liddar went to Chandigarh on a high-profile visit with Canada’s then Prime Minister Jean Chretien in the same month to open the consulate, but since then, he has been cooling his heels in Ottawa and drawing a government salary of Canadian $120,000 a year because the Canadian Security and Intelligence Service (CSIS) prevented him from proceeding to India to take up his post.

Instead, officials of Canada’s Privy Council ' the equivalent of India’s cabinet secretariat ' offered him six month’s salary in return for a “confidentiality agreement”, under which neither side would talk about the reasons for cancelling his appointment.

Liddar, a journalist with high connections in Canada’s ruling Liberal Party, rejected the compromise and appealed against the denial of his security clearance to a Security Intelligence Review Committee (SIRC), which oversees the CSIS.

Last month, the SIRC, which includes two of this country’s provincial premiers, overruled the CSIS and Canada’s deputy minister for foreign affairs, Peter Harder, wrote to Liddar’s lawyer: “I am not satisfied that the concerns of CSIS as regards the issues of (Liddar’s) loyalty and reliability have been substantiated. I, therefore, grant a clearance.”

Yet, there is no sign that Liddar is about to fly to Chandigarh any time soon.

Officials in South Block, puzzled by the saga of Liddar’s appointment and its subsequent undoing, say they have never received any formal communication from the Canadians appointing him as consul-general in Chandigarh.

But socially, Indian government officials have interacted with Liddar in Ottawa, New Delhi and Chandigarh as the consul-general-in-waiting.

There is a sense of bewilderment within the diplomatic community here that Liddar was allowed to attend a regional meeting of Canadian heads of missions in South Asia held in New Delhi before he was vetted for security clearance.

In South Block, there is a tinge of regret that the controversy has taken some toll of an opportunity in Liddar’s appointment that presented itself for bringing Indo-Canadians into official activity for promoting relations between India and Canada, especially at a time when the wounds left by Khalistan in this country are healing.

The episode may also persuade South Block to reconsider its recent willingness to allow foreign governments to open consulates outside New Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai and Calcutta.

The Canadian consulate in Chandigarh is only the third foreign outpost outside these four cities: the other two are the Portuguese consulate in Goa and the French consulate in Pondicherry.

Clearly, Liddar has a lot of support from Canadians of Indian origin. Prime Minister Paul Martin acknowledged that support when he wrote to the 50,000-strong Ontario Khalsa Darbar, for instance, that the SIRC’s “recommendations will help resolve this matter”.

Liddar’s lawyer is now demanding that he should be given a fresh posting to Chandigarh with a full three-year term instead of being asked to go to India for the remainder of his posting, which began on paper in October 2003.

Meanwhile, with Canada heading for an election soon, rival politicians are finding fuel in the episode for an electorally lucrative political battle.

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