By Col R Hariharan
India-Canada relations that took a severe beating a fortnight ago after Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, accused India of complicity in the murder of a Canadian citizen and Khalistani terrorist Hardeep Singh Nijjar, are showing no signs of recovery. The reason for this is simple; as External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar puts it: “(Khalistan) separatism, crime, and terror all mixed up” in this issue. Nijjar was shot dead outside the Gurdwara he presided over in a suburb of Vancouver, British Columbia, on June 18, 2023. Trudeau chose on the floor of Canadian parliament to accuse India for Nijjar’s killing, based on “credible allegations of potential link” between Indian government agents. The accusation shocked India, which dismissed it as “absurd and motivated.” The Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) in a hard-hitting statement said: “Similar allegations were made by the Canadian PM to our PM and were completely rejected.” (It was referring to their meeting on the sidelines of the G20 Summit meeting. PM Modi had conveyed “strong concerns” about “extremist elements in Canada” who were “promoting secessionism and violence against Indian diplomats, damaging premises and threatening the Indian community in Canada and their places of worship.”)
The MEA statement further affirmed “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….the inaction of the Canadian Government on this matter has been a long standing and continuing concern… The space given in Canada to a range of illegal activities, including murders, human trafficking and organised crime is not new.” It urged the Canadian government “to take prompt and effective legal action against all anti-India elements operating from their soil.”
The issue of Khalistan terrorist presence in Canada is not new; it had come up when the two leaders met on the sidelines of the G-7 plus Summit in Germany in May 2022. Trudeau during his latest visit to New Delhi had confirmed that he had discussed with PM Modi India’s concerns over Khalistani groups. He added: “Canada will always defend freedom of expression, freedom of conscience, and freedom of peaceful protest and it is extremely important to us. At the same time, we are always there to prevent violence and to push back against hatred.” The Canadian prime minister said the actions of a “few” did not represent the whole community or country. That had been Canada’s refrain to soft pedal Khalistan extremist activities.
Trudeau’s actions cannot be dismissed merely as a diplomatic faux pas. It is easy to attribute it to compulsions of domestic politics, because Nijjar was an influential Sikh, involved in organising a “referendum” on Khalistan. As a militant leader of Khalistan Tiger Force, Nijjar has a criminal record in India that secured him two Interpol Red Corner notices. He visited Pakistan in 2013-14 where he met with Jagtar Singh Tara of Babbar Khalsa International and was recruited in the ISI. In 2020, India designated Nijjar a terrorist under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act. Last but not least, he was probably a double agent working for Canada. His son Balraj Singh Nijjar has said his father had been meeting with Canadian Security Intelligence Service officers “once or twice a week”, including one or two days before his murder.
The American ambassador to Canada, David Cohen, has clarified that the Canadian prime minister’s allegation was based on “shared intelligence among Five Eyes partners.” Five Eyes is an intelligence alliance between the US, the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Originally, it was created as a US-UK alliance in 1941 to share signals intelligence. In the post-war years, it came to be known as Five Eyes after Canada, Australia and New Zealand were admitted. Ambassador Cohen further added: “There was a lot of communication between Canada and the US about this. We have been coordinating with the Canadians on this issue. And from our perspective, it is critical that the Canadian investigations proceed, and it would be important that India work with the Canadians on this investigation. We want to see accountability, and it is important that the investigation runs its course and leads to that result.” The US, UK, Australia and New Zealand have been cautious in their comments; they have expressed their concern and encouraged India to collaborate in the ongoing investigation.
The reason for Five Eyes to eavesdrop on India’s communication on Khalistani extremism is obvious: these extremists have been active in all the Five Eyes countries. They have defaced Hindu temples and have been holding violent protests in front of Indian consulates, creating panic among Hindus. India had drawn the attention of these countries to the extremists’ anti-India activities at the highest levels. However, they have been giving a broad brush to India’s concerns. Their diplomatic attitude towards India is best described by American actor Will Rogers who said Diplomacy is the art of saying “Nice doggie” until you can find a rock.
On the positive side, Trudeau’s open accusation of India’s complicity in Nijjar killing has provided India an opportunity to relook at its actions against Khalistan extremism, both at home and abroad. This is evident from Jaishankar’s speech at the “Discussion at Council on Foreign Relations” in New York. He said: “In the last few years, Canada actually has seen a lot of organized crime, relating to the secessionist forces, organized crime, violence and extremism. They’re all very, very deeply mixed up….in fact, we have been talking about specifics and information.
“Indian government has provided the Canadian side with a lot of information about organised crime and there has been a large number of extradition requests. There are terrorist leaders, who have been identified,” he further added. “So, we have a situation where our diplomats are threatened, our consulates have been attacked….A lot of this is often justified, as saying that’s how democracies work.” Jaishankar further said: “If there is any incident which is an issue and somebody gives me something specific, as a government, I would look at it.”
At home, India has taken firm action. It is filing cases in the UK against 15 Khalistani Indian passport holders, who had vandalised the Indian high commission premises in London. The National Intelligence Agency (NIA) is currently carrying out raids in 51 locations in six states targeting individuals linked to three notorious gangs—Lawrence Bishnoi, Bambiha and Arshadeep Dalla—associated with the Khalistani criminal network. The NIA has ordered the seizure of the Indian properties of 19 Khalistani fugitives, including that of Gurpatwant Singh Pannu, general counsel of the banned pro-Khalistan outfit Sikhs for Justice (SFJ). India has temporarily closed its visa office in Canada and stopped the entry of OCI and PIO card holders. These measures seem to have affected the number of pro-Khalistan supporters gathering to protest outside the Indian consulate in Vancouver after these orders. In the last count, there were hardly a dozen protesters.
However, the future course of India-Canada relations is not clear. Perhaps, some clarity will emerge when the slated meeting of US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and Jaishankar takes place in the next few days. Hopefully, some measures can probably be expected to defuse the India-Canada standoff.
—The writer is a retired military intelligence specialist on South Asia associated with the Chennai Centre for China Studies