By Kenneth Tiven
The dispute between Canada and India over the killing of a Canadian citizen, Hardeep Singh Nijjar, a Sikh activist, is escalating dramatically based on alleged electronic intelligence linking Indian officials and diplomats to the killing. The Canadian national broadcaster reports there is pressure for the government to release the “credible allegations”. Speaking to reporters at the United Nations in New York on Thursday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called on India to cooperate with Canadian authorities to “uncover the truth” behind the killing.
The Biden administration’s efforts for a rapprochement between India and the USA on a number of issues is not helped by an acrimonious dispute between Trudeau and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Jake Sullivan, the top US national security adviser said this is a “matter of concern for the White House” and that officials were in talks with their Indian counterparts. “There’s not some special exemption you get for actions like this,” he told reporters. “Regardless of the country, we will stand up and defend our basic principles and we will also consult closely with allies like Canada as they pursue their law enforcement and diplomatic process,” he said.
This entire issue blew into the open on Monday when Trudeau told Canada’s parliament that Nijjar’s murder outside his Sikh Gurdwara in British Columbia in June may have been done by Indian government agents. Trudeau must have known things would go downhill as he had briefly raised the issue with Modi at the G20 meeting. “Any involvement of a foreign government in the killing of a Canadian citizen on Canadian soil is an unacceptable violation of our sovereignty,” he said.
Trudeau’s inherent Canadian politeness barely masks his penchant for direct speech, which has often startled political observers at home and abroad.
India’s ministry of external affairs “completely rejected” Trudeau’s claims which it described as “absurd” and politically motivated. It accused Canada of providing shelter to “Khalistani terrorists and extremists” who threaten India’s security by seeking an independent Punjab nation. “We urge the government of Canada to take prompt and effective legal action against all anti-India elements operating from their soil,” the Indian ministry said.
When Nijjar became influential within the Sikh temple a decade ago, it shifted towards a more intense position on the issue of separatism. Today, the yellow flags of a theoretical Khalistan are around the grounds of the Guru Nanak Sikh Gurdwara temple near Vancouver. This is the largest temple in British Columbia which is the centre of the Sikh diaspora in Canada.
Canada is believed to have the largest concentration of Sikhs outside of Punjab, nearly 800,000 people among the 1.4 million people of Indian ethnic or cultural origin there. Sikhs are about 2% of Canada’s population, with Ottawa having designated this past April as Sikh Heritage Month. Nijjar, 45, was shot dead in June in his vehicle by two masked gunmen in the busy car park of the Gurdwara in Surrey, a city about 30 km east of Vancouver.
The Sikh community in Canada has shifted with the second-generation, the children of Sikhs who fled to Canada after violence in India in the 1980s, according to Canadian experts. They add it is not easy to measure how the entire Sikh community in Canada feels on the issue of separatism.
Diplomatic responses to political statements were quick to come.
Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly said she has ordered the expulsion of “a senior Indian diplomat”. Joly said allegations that an agent connected to the Indian government was behind the death of Nijjar are “troubling and completely unacceptable if true.”
Her office said that diplomat is Pavan Kumar Rai, the head of the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), India’s foreign intelligence agency, in Canada. “My expectations are clear. I expect India to fully collaborate with us and get to the bottom of this,” Joly said.
Hours later, India said it had expelled a Canadian diplomat with five days’ notice to leave the country. In a statement early Tuesday, India’s foreign ministry said the Canadian high commissioner, or ambassador, in New Delhi had been summoned and told: “The decision reflects the government of India’s growing concern at the interference of Canadian diplomats in our internal matters and their involvement in anti-India activities,” the ministry added.
Descriptions of Nijjar vary dramatically depending on who is talking. His leadership of the Temple and the community is praised, with his passing lamented since being gunned down by two men who escaped. Nijjar vocally championed activist groups, including the Khalistan movement, which seeks to carve out an independent Sikh homeland in India called Khalistan.
As a prominent Sikh separatist leader, he publicly campaigned for Khalistan—the creation of an independent Sikh homeland in the Punjab region of India. Most of this effort has been outside of India, because in recent years, the Modi government has cracked down on such sentiments and any opposition to its Hindu nationalism.
India has in the past described Nijjar as a terrorist who led a militant separatist group—accusations his supporters say are unfounded. They say he had received threats in the past because of his activism.
The Indian response is simply that “such unsubstantiated allegations seek to shift the focus from Khalistani terrorists and extremists, who have been provided shelter in Canada and continue to threaten India’s sovereignty and territorial integrity,” a ministry statement said.
All of this is proving to be a delicate matter for the Biden administration, which has been mending fences with the Indian government as it seeks to strengthen bilateral relationship across Asia. In June, India’s prime minister received a warm welcome at the White House.
Trudeau’s departure from India after the G20 was delayed because of technical problems with his aircraft. His national security adviser instead went directly to London to brief the British government in person that Canada’s relations with India were about to get a whole lot worse. Concurrently, there were also a flurry of conversations between Trudeau and the leaders of the US, Britain and France.
The United States says it’s asserting support for Canada in the midst of a foreign-affairs crisis that places it in an uncomfortable quandary. A report in The Washington Post said Ottawa had tried and failed for weeks to get its allies to publicly condemn the Nijjar murder. Late Tuesday, the Canadian Broadcast Corporation said the US administration had specifically reached out to dispute the Post story. That same US official then pointed to a statement made Monday night by Adrienne Watson, a spokesperson for the White House national security council, which called on the Indian government to co-operate with the Canadian investigation.
Back on Canada’s west coast, Moninder Singh, a spokesman for the British Columbia Sikhs Gurdwaras Council, told the BBC that the community appreciated “that at least the prime minister stood up and acknowledged that there is a foreign hand behind this murder”. After Trudeau’s comments, several large posters and tributes to Nijjar were visible at the Guru Nanak Sikh Gurdwara in Surrey. The World Sikh Organization in Canada welcomed Trudeau for confirming what it thinks is widely believed in the community. Nijjar was wanted by Indian authorities and had been designated as a “terrorist” in July 2020. He had been warned by Canada’s spy agency about threats against him, according to the World Sikh Organization of Canada, which alleged he was “assassinated in a targeted shooting.”
In 2018, Trudeau assured India that Canada would not support anyone trying to revive a separatist movement in India, but he has repeatedly said he respects the right to free speech and assembly of protesters to demonstrate. Canada has its own history of dealing with separatism. In the 1960s, Quebec was the centre of a terrorist movement attempting to separate Quebec from the rest of Canada and establish a French-speaking nation. As a result in 1969, French and English were both declared the official languages of Canada, where previously Canada had one official language: English. In 1974, French became the official language of the province of Quebec.
In June, India’s foreign minister criticized Canada for allowing a parade float depicting the 1984 assassination of then-Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi by her bodyguards, perceived to be glorification of violence by Sikh separatists.
Public Safety Minister Dominic LeBlanc said the RCMP is leading the murder investigation. “We’ll hold the perpetrators accountable and bring them to justice,” he said.
Recently, threats have particularly targeted Indian diplomats and sections of the Indian community who oppose the anti-India agenda. Indian nationals are therefore advised to avoid travelling to regions and potential venues in Canada that have seen such incidents.
Of the more than 800,000 international students in Canada at the end of 2022, more than 320,000 were from India, according to Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada data. India’s Ministry of External Affairs advised Indian nationals and students, that “in view of growing anti-India activities and politically-condoned hate crimes and criminal violence in Canada, all Indian nationals there and those contemplating travel are urged to exercise utmost caution.
Visitors from India rank as Canada’s fourth largest international air travel market, according to the census. In 2021, the 89,500 tourists from India spent $3.4 billion, the most of any group visiting Canada. Canadians visiting India spent $93 million, the most of any group visiting Canada. Canadians visiting India spent $93 million the same year.
With more than $13.7 billion in export trade, India was Canada’s 10th largest two-way merchandise trade partner in 2022, while imports to India totalled $5.3 billion, ranking ninth. After the frosty encounters between Narendra Modi during the Group of 20 meeting, trade talks have been paused and a planned trade mission to India has been cancelled.
—The writer has worked in senior positions at The Washington Post, NBC, ABC and CNN and also consults for several Indian channels