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India-Canada ties hit new low amid Sikh murder probe

Murali Krishnan in New Delhi
September 19, 2023

India and Canada have both expelled diplomats as Canadian authorities say India was involved in the killing of a Sikh activist in British Columbia. Canada is home to the world's largest Sikh diaspora.

A Khalistan billboard in Canada
A mural depicting slain Sikh leader Hardeep Singh Nijjar in British Colombia Image: Chris Helgren/REUTERS

On Monday, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told parliament that his government had "credible" reasons to believe that "agents of the government of India" were responsible for the assassination of Sikh activist Hardeep Singh Nijjar, a Canadian citizen, in the western province of British Columbia three months ago.

"Any involvement of a foreign government in the killing of a Canadian citizen on Canadian soil is an unacceptable violation of our sovereignty," Trudeau said in a statement to the House of Commons.

Canadian Foreign Minister Melanie Joly said Monday "the head" of Indian intelligence in Canada was ordered to leave the country. On Tuesday, India responded by expelling a high-level Canadian diplomat based in India.

India's Ministry of External Affairs said in a statement that "allegations of government of India's involvement in any act of violence in Canada are absurd."

The statement added that India is a "democratic polity" with a "strong commitment to rule of law" and urged Canada to take "prompt and effective legal action" against all "anti-India elements operating from their soil."

Former Indian diplomat Anil Wadhwa told DW that Canada has made a mistake by "escalating the issue," after India rejected having been involved in the killing and should have "worked with Indian authorities to allay any concerns."

"I see a further escalation in this spat, which will affect our trade and people to people ties in a major way. This will play out in international fora as well. It will be a downhill slope for India-Canadian relations," Wadhwa said.

Canada home to Sikh diaspora

On June 18, Sikh leader and activist Nijjar was gunned down by two masked assailants as he left a Sikh temple in Surrey, British Columbia.

According to media reports, Nijjar was a prominent organizer in the Sikh community in Canada. He was also a proponent of the "Khalistan Movement," which calls for a Sikh homeland by carving out an ethno-religious state in India's Punjab region.

The movement dates back to India and Pakistan's independence in 1947, when the idea was pushed forward in negotiations preceding the partition of the Punjab region between the two new countries.

India's government has outlawed the Khalistan Movement as a security threat, and over the decades, there have been periodic episodes of violence related to the movement, including a decade-long insurgency in Punjab during the 1980s and early 1990s.

In 1985, Canada-based Sikh militants were responsible for the bombing of Air India Flight 182 off the coast of Ireland that killed all 329 passengers and crew, including 268 Canadian citizens.

Indian officials said Nijjar, who came to Canada in 1979 claiming refugee status, had been organizing an unofficial referendum among the Sikh diaspora in Surrey. India's government had labelled him a terrorist and sought to have him extradited.

Canada is home to the largest population of Sikhs outside of Punjab, and the Sikh diaspora in Canada often stages activism and peaceful protests for Sikh causes.

"That Canadian political figures have openly expressed sympathy for such elements remains a matter of deep concern," India's government said in a statement in response to Trudeau's announcement.

Priti Singh, a professor from the Centre for Canadian, US and Latin American Studies at Delhi's Jawaharlal Nehru University said Trudeau was using the killing to shore up his image domestically in the light of falling approval ratings.

"This issue was raised publicly by Canada when back door diplomatic channels are there to resolve it. This sharp escalation in rhetoric is because Trudeau is losing domestic support," Singh told DW.

Canada-India ties hit new low

The tit for tat diplomat expulsions mark scaled-up tensions between Canada and India, which have been exacerbated by what India perceives as Canadian indifference to the activities of pro-Khalistan elements in Canada.

"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," said a statement released this week by the Indian prime minister's office.

Sikhs wearing turbans fly yellow flags
Niijar supporters in Canada carry his casket at a funeral in June Image: Darryl Dyck/ZUMA Press/IMAGO

In 2022, tensions between Canada and India were also raised after a Sikh separatist group organized a so-called referendum in the Canadian city of Brampton on Khalistan. India's government at the time condemned Canada for allowing the vote to take place.

In July, India was particularly irked by a float at a pro-Khalistan rally in Toronto, which gruesomely depicted the 1984 assassination of former Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, who was killed by her Sikh bodyguards.

At the sidelines of the recent G20 summit, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke about his concerns over "extremist elements" in Canada during his meeting with Trudeau. Trudeau had reportedly raised Nijjar's killing directly with Modi during the G20 summit and urged the government of India to cooperate with Canada.

At the same summit, Canada announced it would pause talks on a free-trade agreement with India.

Meera Shankar, a former Indian ambassador to the US, said the diplomatic spat is unfortunate given that India and Canada have much to gain by strengthening cooperation.

Shankar told DW that "extremist elements" are given "free reign" in Canada and claimed that Trudeau's government was pandering to Sikh voters for political support.

"Liberal principles or the cultivation of domestic constituencies should not involve tolerance of violence, or threats to Indian diplomats, or funding of violent activities in India," she said.

Canada is home to nearly 800,000 Sikhs, who represent an important political constituency. Four Sikh cabinet ministers were appointed by Trudeau in 2015.

However, Ravinder Singh Ahuja, president of the Sikh Forum in New Delhi, told DW that the Khalistan Movement is often misconstrued as representing the will of the entire Sikh community worldwide.

"Khalistan is not a reflection of the Sikhs living in India. It is not a physical or geographical line that is drawn and is merely utopian," he said.

Edited by: Wesley Rahn 

Murali Krishnan
Murali Krishnan Journalist based in New Delhi, focusing on Indian politics, society and business@mkrish11