India-Canada diplomatic showdown could trigger larger, longer issues

Venkat Raman
Auckland, September 22, 2023

Relations between India and Canada nosedived to unbelievable lows this week, giving rise to a new crisis as common friends struggled to take sides, but issue ‘cool off’ statements.

On Monday (September 18), Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said that his government had ‘credible evidence’ that Indian agents were involved in the death of separatist leader Hardeep Singh Najjar, a charge that was vigorously denied by the Indian government as absurd.

This was followed by the cancellation (postponed was the term used) of a trade delegation from Canada to India on Tuesday. A further salt to the wound was added when Ottawa expelled an Indian diplomat describing him as the head of Indian intelligence in Canada. New Delhi responded by sending home a Canadian diplomat accusing of interfering in the internal affairs of India.

The standoff between the two countries became even more pronounced on Thursday (September 21) when the Ministry of External Affairs demanded a reduction in the number of Canadian diplomats stationed in India and suspended services at its High Commission and Consulates in Canada.

A notification issued by BLS International, an outsourced company that handles Indian visa applications in Canada cited ‘operational reasons’ for the suspension and said that ‘visa services will remain suspended until further notice.’

There was tension in the air as Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was in New Delhi on September 9 to attend the two-day Summit of the G20 countries of which India was the President. His absence at the State Dinner hosted by Indian President Draupadi Murmu and the rebuke of Prime Minister Narendra Modi at an earlier meeting were early indications of a diplomatic shutdown.

There have been reports in the media that India’s diplomatic missions in Canada and that Mr Trudeau had participated in events at which Khalistan separatist flags and photograph of the Sikh leader Jarnail Sigh Bhindranwale (who was killed in the June 1984 Operation Bluestar) were shown.

According to media reports, Mr Modi had taken up the issue of attacks on Indian diplomats and diplomatic missions during a meeting with Trudeau.

“Extreme elements in Canada are promoting secessionism and inciting violence against Indian diplomats, damaging diplomatic premises and threatening the Indian community in Canada and their places of worship,” Mr Modi said.

Mr Trudeau is yet to provide evidence to back his allegations against India but Mr Modi and his government have made their rage.

Khalistan Leader Hardeep Singh Nijjar who was murdered in Canada 

About Hardeep Singh Nijjar

Hardeep Singh Nijjar was an India-born Canadian Sikh separatist leader involved with the Khalistan movement. He was wanted by Indian authorities and was designated a terrorist under India’s Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, accused of plotting the murder of a Hindu priest in Punjab.

In 2019, Mr Nijjar took the leadership of a Sikh temple in Surrey, Canada and became an outspoken advocate of Sikh separatism. On June 18, 2023, he was shot and killed in the parking lot of a Sikh temple in British Columbia. Canadian authorities have not made any arrests in connection with the murder.

Mr Trudeau has thus far said that Canadian Intelligence agencies were “pursuing credible allegations of a potential link between Indian government agents to the assassination of Mr Nijjar.

Domestic support

Politicians in Canada have expressed support to Mr Trudeau, including the main Opposition Leader Pierre Poilievre. A few other powerful countries, considered otherwise close to India, have also spoken.

The US administration has said that it was “deeply concerned” by the allegations, while the UK said that it is “in close touch” with Canada on the issue.

CNN, quoting a spokesperson for Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong, said that his country is also “deeply concerned” by the allegations.

“We are closely engaged with partners on developments. We have conveyed our concerns at senior levels to India. We understand that these reports will be particularly concerning to some Australian communities. The Indian diaspora are valued and important contributors to our vibrant and resilient multicultural society, where all Australians can peacefully and safely express their views,” he said.

And domestic dissent

Some observers cite the diminishing political fortune of Mr Trudeau and his Liberal Party as the biggest threat to his government, although the fall out with India could in some ways advance it.

The Angus Reid Institute, a not-for-profit institution based in Vancouver, said in its latest report that the popularity of Mr Trudeau and his Liberal Party have been on a slide and that his perceived handling of the cost-of-living crisis has sent a significant segment of past Liberal voters to both the New Democrats and opposition Conservatives and that his personal approval has also dived.

“This bleeding of support benefits the Conservative Party directly, with CPC vote intent now at 39%, a 12-point advantage over the Liberals. More critically, Conservative leader Pierre Poilievre is now seen as best Prime Minister by twice as many as those who say the same of the actual prime minister (32% vs 17%) and is additionally viewed by a plurality (41%) as best to manage the economy,” its report said.

About the Khalistan Movement

The Khalistan Movement is a separatist movement seeking to create a homeland for Sikhs by establishing an ethno‐religious sovereign state called Khalistan or the State of Khalisa in Punjab. The proposed boundaries of Khalistan vary between different groups.

The call for a separate Sikh state began during the 1930s, when British rule in India was nearing its end.

In 1940, the first explicit call for Khalistan was made in a pamphlet titled ‘Khalistan.’ With financial and political support of the Sikh Diaspora, the Movement flourished in the Indian state of Punjab, which has Sikh majority, continuing through the 1970s and 1980s, and reaching its zenith in the late 1980s.

The Sikh separatist Leader Jagjit Singh Chohan claimed that during his talks with Pakistani Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto following the Indo-Pakistani War of 1971, the latter had proposed ‘all out help’ to the Khalistan cause, but this support never materialised.

With the end of the cold war in the 1990s, the insurgency petered out but there is still support among Sikhs, with yearly demonstrations in protest of those killed during Operation Blue Star.

Calls for Khalistan are loud among some in the Sikh Diaspora in countries such as Canada, Australia and the United Kingdom. New Delhi has reacted sharply to demonstrations for and referendums on Khalistan by Sikh activists in these countries, not illegal there, but a major irritant for India.

Canada has the largest population of Sikhs outside India, with more than 770,000 people claiming to be members of the community. Canadian Sikhs account for 26% of the estimated three million Sikhs living outside India.

The emerging scenario

Mr Trudeau seem to have somewhat softened his approach, although India is not appeased.

Speaking to reporters in New York where he was attending the annual UN General Assembly meeting (which Mr Modi and many other world leaders did not attend), he said, “There is no question that India is a country of growing importance, and a country that we need to continue to work with – not just in the region but around the world. And we are not looking to provoke or cause problems. But we are unequivocal around the importance of the rule of law, and unequivocal about the importance of protecting Canadians and standing up for our values.”

India’s External Affairs Minister Dr Subrahmanyam Jaishankar said earlier this year that Canada’s response to Khalistan has been driven by ‘vote bank compulsion,’ a reference to the support that the Liberal Party gets from Sikhs. Mr Trudeau’s minority government is also backed by the New Democratic Party (NDP), which is led by Jagmeet Singh, a Sikh.

Chintamani Mahapatra, Founder of the Kalinga Institute of Indo-Pacific Studies based Bhubaneswar, Odisha that Mr Trudeau has ignored the sentiments of the larger Indo-Canadian community, which includes the Canadian Sikhs and appears biased in favour of the Khalistanis.

But Avinash Paliwal, who teaches Politics and International Studies at SOAS University of London said that the sudden escalation may not be due to just domestic compulsions.

“If your intelligence agencies have gathered credible information that another country, even if it is an ally, was involved in a covert operation on your soil, you are bound to act on that,” he said adding that it is that Mr Trudeau tried to raise the issue through other channels first.

“With his position locked, Mr Trudeau has no other option but to back his allegation with evidence. Given Ottawa’s careful calibrations herein, the chances of Canada producing incriminating evidence are not low. But what this evidence is, how it is presented, and to whom, remains to be seen. In an ideal scenario, the US could be a silent mediator, shape a backstage agreement, curate respectable off-ramps for both sides, and help reduce the salience of the Khalistan issue not just with Canada, but also with the UK, Australia and New Zealand,” he said.

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