A diplomatic standoff between India and Canada escalated after Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made strong allegations over the Indian government's role in the death of wanted Khalistani terrorist Hardeep Singh Nijjar. This was followed by a tit-for-tat expulsion of Indian and Canadian diplomats from opposite countries.
Trudeau on Monday claimed that Canada's national security officials have reasons to believe that "agents of the Indian government" carried out Nijjar's killing in June based on "credible allegations", and urged India to cooperate on this matter. India strongly rejected the claims as 'absurd and motivated' and expressed concern over the Canadian government's inaction over terror activities by pro-Khalistan members on their soil.
Trudeau's remarks were followed by the expulsion of Pavan Kumar Rai, the head of India's intelligence agency Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) by the Foreign Ministry of Canada. In retaliation, India also expelled a top Canadian official identified as the chief of the Canadian intelligence agency.
These developments have sparked concerns that relations between India and Canada have reached their lowest point. Canada has long been considered a safe haven for Khalistani supporters who are accused of inciting terrorist activities against India. However, tensions have now reached a boiling point after the recent killing of Nijjar and Trudeau's refusal to condemn Khalistani activities.
The death of Hardeep Singh Nijjar
Canada-based pro-Khalistan terrorist Hardeep Singh Nijjar, who was declared a 'wanted terrorist' by the Indian government, was shot dead by two unidentified gunmen at the parking lot of Guru Nanak Sikh Gurdwara in the Punjabi-dominated Surrey city of British Columbia province.
Nijjar was also associated with the separatist organisation, Sikhs for Justice (SFJ), which is banned in India. He is accused of being proactively involved in recruiting, training, financing and operationalising pro-Khalistan terrorist modules for spreading terror in India.
The Khalistani terrorist was wanted in several cases, including a blast in 2007 that killed six people in Ludhiana. The National Investigation Agency (NIA) filed a chargesheet in 2022 against the KTF chief over a conspiracy to kill a Hindu priest in Jalandhar. A cash reward of Rs 10 lakhs was declared against Nijjar by the NIA.
After Nijjar was shot dead. a pro-Khalistani poster sparked outrage across India in July by calling India's High Commissioner to Ottawa Sanjay Kumar Verma and Consul General in Toronto Apoorva Srivastava as "killers" of Nijjar.?
In the wake of these developments in Canada, India has repeatedly called on Canadian authorities to take effective action against Khalistani members promoting terrorism against India on foreign soil. The External Affairs Ministry said that such posters calling for violence against Indian diplomats were "unacceptable'.?
Justin Trudeau's 'humiliating' India trip
India recently concluded a successful G20 Leaders' Summit in New Delhi, where prominent world leaders including Trudeau, US President Joe Biden, British PM Rishi Sunak and French President Emmanuel Macron were invited. While PM Narendra Modi received praise for the success of the event, Trudeau was largely ignored by every world leader in the two-day summit.
Trudeau's India trip was largely subdued and he was not even present at the G20 dinner hosted by President Droupadi Murmu. After he was reportedly snubbed by global leaders, Canadian opposition leader Pierre Poilievre said that Trudeau was "humiliated and trampled upon".
"Putting partisanship aside, no one likes to see a Canadian prime minister repeatedly humiliated and trampled upon by the rest of the world," Poilievre said on social media platform X.
India-Canada relations showed signs of cracking when Trudeau met with PM Modi, where the latter expressed strong concerns to Trudeau over Canada's handling of pro-Khalistani activities. In a tersely-worded statement, MEA said,"They are promoting secessionism and inciting violence against Indian diplomats, damaging diplomatic premises, and threatening the Indian community in Canada and their places of worship. The nexus of such forces with organized crime, drug syndicates and human trafficking should be a concern for Canada as well. It is essential for the two countries to cooperate in dealing with such threats."
However, Trudeau refused to condemn the pro-Khalistan forces, saying that Canada will "defend freedom of expression and peaceful protests" but will also work on preventing violence and push back against hatred. He also stressed that “the actions of the few do not represent the entire community or Canada”, in regard to the Khalistani community.
To make things worse, Trudeau's turbulent trip to India was extended by a couple of days when his aircraft suffered a technical snag. India had offered the services of Air India One - a two-plane fleet used by the President, Vice-President and the Prime Minister for Trudeau's return. However, his government declined the offer and decided to wait for their own plane.
Why is Trudeau refusing to condemn Khalistan activities?
It is worth mentioning that Canada has a large Sikh population of over 770,000, comprising more than 2% of the national population. External Affairs Minister Dr S Jaishankar has said that Canada's policy on Khalistani activities is driven by 'vote-bank politics'.
It is to be understood that the Canadian government is looking to avoid losing votes to the quickly-growing Sikh population in the country. Canada already has the second-largest Sikh population in the world after India.
In Canadian politics, Sikh lawmakers and officials are now serving at major levels of the government, thus making it one of the most important political communities in the country. Notably figures include Jagmeet Singh, who became the first Sikh leader of a key Canadian political party in 2017.
Trudeau seems to be dealing with a double-edged sword. While his silence on Khalistani activities is influenced by his desire to avoid antagonising a significant population of Canada, his government can be held culpable for the rise in terrorist activities against India.
How long have Khalistani movements existed in Canada?
Khalistani movements have a long history on the Canadian soil since Sikhs started to immigrate to the country from the 1970s. The city of Brampton, which has a high Sikh population, is considered as a Khalistani hotspot. However, not all Canadian Sikhs are Khalistani supporters.
Several prominent Khalistani leaders have also emerged from the groups existing in Canada, like Talwinder Singh Parmar, the leader of Babbar Khalsa International, who is held responsible for the bombing of Air India flight 182 in 1985 that killed more than 300 people.
In 2002, a Toronto-based weekly magazine reportedly celebrated the assassination of former Indian PM Indira Gandhi by 'honouring' her killers'. Gandhi had also raised the concerns of Khalistani activities to her then-counterpart Pierre Trudeau. This year, Khalistani groups marked the 39th anniversary of Operation Blue Star, put up a tableau of late Prime Minister Indira Gandhi with blood on her clothes and a poster that read, "Revenge of attack on Shri Darbar Sahib".
Several Hindu temples have also been vandalised by such groups with anti-India graffiti, including the BAPS Swaminarayan temple in Canada's Ontario province. Such Khalistani expressions have emerged in the United Kingdom as well.
Is this the lowest point in India-Canada relations?
Since establishing diplomatic ties with Canada in 1947, New Delhi has had good relations with Ottawa boasting of shared traditions of democracy, pluralism and strong interpersonal connections. Both countries are crucial trading partners, with Trudeau himself acknowledging during the G20 Summit that India is an "extraordinarily important economy" in the world.
A hallmark of India-Canada relations has been the massive Indian diaspora population in Canada. It is also one of the most preferred education destinations for Indian students. Bilateral trade between both countries has risen to around $8.6 billion in 2022. The trade relations are unlikely to be affected by the recent political acrimony
The Khalistan issue has posed challenges for the India-Canada bilateral relationship for several years since independence. The Canadian PM has repeatedly reassured India that it does not support any separatist movements but has upheld freedom of speech and expression.
However, the aftermath of Nijjar's killing brought the heat on the partnership when Canada halted a scheduled trade mission to India. The recent remarks by Trudeau in the Canadian Parliament mark the sharpest and the most direct attack on India by claiming that the latter played a role in the murder.
The explosive statements followed by the expulsion of diplomats from both sides is a dramatic nosedive in India-Canada bilateral ties. This is the first time a Western country has directly blamed India for an act of violence on foreign soil.