The ongoing diplomatic row between the governments of India and Canada over Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s allegation that India sanctioned the killing of a pro-Khalistan Canadian Sikh Hardeep Singh Nijjar – a wanted terrorist in India – continues to play out, even as India made a move to restore some visa services.
Shortly after he returned to Canada from the G20 summit (a return that was curiously delayed by two days as the Canadian PM’s plane developed serious mechanical issues), Trudeau made an unprecedented speech in the Canadian Parliament on September 18 claiming a review of “credible allegations” that Indian agents were linked to Nijjar’s killing.
The pro-Khalistan separatist movement calls for the secession of India’s Punjab region and is historically associated with terrorist methods, leading to thousands of deaths in India in the 1980s and early 1990s. Many Khalistani groups are proscribed (banned) in the UK because of this violent extremism. However, this is a threat which Canada appears to not have fully grasped, despite a 1985 Air India flight crash which claimed hundreds of Canadian lives being linked with Sikh separatists.
In the current standoff, the Canadian government seems to have struggled to proffer substantial proof, although there has been a steady drip in the Canadian and American media claiming that communications intelligence intercepts by Western powers can back up Trudeau’s allegations. However, so far none of this evidence has been made public.
Needless to say, India has strongly denied the allegations and it has led to tit-for-tat impact on Canadian diplomats and intelligence officials, besides a suspension of visa processes. This deep freeze in the Indo-Canadian relationship has caused some hardship for the diaspora in Canada, which will no doubt be relieved with the resumption of visa processes this week. But an expected backlog of around 17,500 Canadian visa applications is expected by December, according to Canada’s Immigration Minister.
There are around 320,000 Indian students studying in Canada at present, with Canadian institutes earning $10.2 billion dollars annually as of 2022 from this cohort of Indians – a substantial economic factor that Ottawa cannot easily dismiss.
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Canada has thus far been unable to furnish any credible evidence to back up its allegation of Indian involvement in the killing of Nijjar in British Columbia on June 18. If some proof eventually emerges from intelligence intercepts, as has been claimed in sections of the Western media, it begs the question – what are the so-called Five Eyes countries (a close-knit intelligence sharing grouping of the English-speaking powers US, UK, Australia, Canada, and New Zealand) doing spying on a friendly country such as India?
Questions are also being asked in the Indian media over how an individual with Khalistani links managed to gain Canadian citizenship, despite there being safeguards against the abuse of the Canadian citizenship process? India’s media has flashed video clips of Nijjar holding firearms and attending terrorist training camps in Pakistan. Further news updates indicate that Canadian intelligence was in touch with Nijjar in the days leading up to his death, even going as far as to warn him that his life was under threat. This raises several further questions, especially if the eventual victim was involved in any form of illegal political activity as a Canadian citizen.
As 41 Canadian diplomats left India following weeks of fraught negotiations, India stressed that this enables the downsizing of the Canadian embassy so that there is numerical parity between the diplomatic staff of the two countries. India’s External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar pointed out recently that “maintaining two-way diplomatic parity was consistent with the Vienna Convention”, which governs international diplomatic relations.
It signals Delhi’s disappointment over the blame game approach of Canada without a proper grasp of the threat of terrorism involved. A possible approach to the Financial Action Task Force, the UN mandated counter-terrorism financing body, is believed to be under consideration.
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All of this is playing out against the backdrop of protests with anti-India posters clearly threatening violence against Indian diplomats at its missions abroad. None of this offers confidence that Indians are safe from extremists in Canada.
The India-Canada row has caused the Anglosphere, or English-origin countries, to walk a diplomatic tightrope. On the one hand, they cannot afford to alienate India which is a critical strategic partner. India is indispensable for the West to be able to counter China effectively as part of its Indo-Pacific strategy. Only Delhi has the combination of a stable democracy and rapid economic growth to be able to balance China’s expansionist approach in the region.
Furthermore, there are trillions of dollars in business to be done between India and the West. Unsurprisingly, support for Canada has been rather muted, limited to urging India to cooperate with Canada’s investigation.
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The US expressed its dismay over the exit of Canadian diplomats from India, however neither the US nor the UK has taken any harsh action against India, highlighting how important Delhi is to Washington today. UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is hoping to wrap up a wide-ranging free trade agreement (FTA) with India. All of this give Trudeau little room to manoeuvre, who is undoubtedly being influenced by his own domestic political landscape involving Canadian Sikhs.
The overall significance of this diplomatic standoff is that a confident India is asserting itself on the world stage when it feels that its stability and internal cohesion are under threat. It may be yet another development heralding India’s rise as a world power, albeit at some short-term cost for the diaspora in Canada.
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Jeevan Vipinachandran is a UK-based writer and political analyst specialising in political conflict and counter-terrorism. With a Masters in Comparative Politics: Conflict Studies from the London School of Economics (LSE), his core interest is in international relations with a special focus on the rise of India and its impact on the world stage.