Outcome apart, the India-Canada quarrel carries reputational cost

Avinash Paliwal

Avinash Paliwal

London, September 23, 2023

Avinash Paliwal
London, September 23, 2023

There are multiple scenarios, but the investigation and a potential public inquiry imply a long, bruising journey for all parties

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s explosive claim that there are “credible allegations” of Indian intelligence involvement in the killing of Hardeep Singh Nijjar, a designated terrorist in India, on Canadian soil has sent bilateral relations into a tailspin.

Terming the alleged act an “unacceptable violation of our sovereignty,” Trudeau expelled an Indian diplomat. India retaliated by expelling a Canadian diplomat and rejecting the charges as “absurd.”

The scene is now set for further deterioration of ties if not uncontrolled escalation.

The persistence of the Khalistan movement in the Sikh Diaspora has long complicated India’s ties with the West. But it took a sharp downturn after the 2020-2021 farmers’ protests and played out in a series of surreal developments ranging from the sudden arrival and arrest in Punjab of Sikh radical Amritpal Singh Sandhu this April to violent protests at Indian diplomatic missions across western capitals, followed by systematic, and near-simultaneous, killings of various Khalistan militants in Pakistan and Canada coupled with the mysterious death of another in the United Kingdom (UK). Canada is pinning one of these killings on India.

Such backstage covert ops are difficult to trace and assess for obvious reasons.

Some important questions

But Canada’s decision to escalate it to the diplomatic frontstage, similar to how London reacted when the Russian dissident, Sergei Skripal, was poisoned, raises important questions.

One, why? The urge to explain this as Trudeau’s attempt to appease the Canadian Sikh “vote-bank” is logical but inadequate. There are deeper, structural causes at play with long-term implications.

Two, what next? The ongoing investigation and a potential public inquiry imply a long, bruising journey ahead for all parties involved.

To understand Ottawa’s decision, one needs to unpack the signalling and underlying political sources of such a bilateral schism.

If Ottawa’s allegations are correct, this is arguably the first ever (known) covert assassination by Indian intelligence on Western soil. Given how it was executed – the target was shot by unknown gunmen – it seems that little effort was made to conceal signatures.

In this scenario, India’s signal to Canada remains unmistakeable: if you don’t act against Khalistan militants, or belittle our security concerns, we will take action. Undoubtedly, this makes many in India jubilant.

 

 

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau with India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi
at the start of the G20 Summit in New Delhi on September 9, 2023 (PMO Photo)

Serious countersignal

But Ottawa’s countersignal is serious.

Ottawa’s core audience is not New Delhi, but its Five-Eyes allies (Australia, New Zealand, the UK and the US). More than seeking to deter India from using similar methods in future, Canada is telling its allies that there are limits to the West’s alignment with India.

To think that muted responses from other Western countries, most of which are investing in India to counter China, means that India will not incur costs is erroneous. In going public, Canada has emboldened a vast reservoir of silent India sceptics in the Western power corridors. And India’s response to the Canadian allegations is fuelling, not abating, these concerns.

To argue that Canada is being hypocritical, given the West’s rich record of interventions, support to authoritarians, and its thriving global infrastructure of covert ops is both true and futile.

Ottawa, under Trudeau, has decided to use this incident to bring into sharp relief the conflicting value systems of a conservative India and struggling Western liberals.

Such political mismatch, which these countries work hard to overlook for strategic reasons, is lubricating this collision. It explains why the West doesn’t share India’s perspective on this issue and considers New Delhi’s sensitivities as an exercise in threat inflation.

Even if Washington DC or London don’t support Ottawa to keep India warm, the political effect of Ottawa’s frontstage act will reverberate long and wide.

The heightened state of Western sensitivity around foreign interference in their domestic politics risks India being clubbed with China and Russia. This could limit New Delhi’s room for strategic manoeuvres in the future. Even a rise of conservative parties in the West, perhaps seen by some in India as a solution to this impasse, might not entirely obviate the accruing reputational and diplomatic damage.

Trudeau must provide evidence

This brings us to the second question of what is next. With his position locked, 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).

But if this does not happen, Ottawa has two options. It might release evidence through a public inquiry or use a “media drip” technique. The former will likely tie the hands of even those conservative Canadian politicos who champion stronger ties with India. But the latter is what Ankara did to Riyadh when exposing the botched Saudi assassination of regime critic Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul. Turkey leaked bits of evidence to the media and successfully tainted the Crown Prince’s global image for good.

If Canada opts for the second option, the reputational costs for New Delhi could be exorbitant.

It will bust the myth that India is the new Israel; not because it cannot execute untraceable covert ops (it can), but because its alignment with the West is of a limited quality even at its current peak.

One must also make no mistake that in such circumstances India will remain steadfast, its media will counter negative international press, and Opposition parties will rally around the flag.

Avinash Paliwal teaches at SOAS University of London and is the author of My Enemy’s Enemy: India in Afghanistan from the Soviet Invasion to the US Withdrawal (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017). The above article, which appeared in The Hindustan Times and BBC News, carries the personal views of Mr Paliwal.

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