Relations between Canada and India are in a tailspin. PM Justin Trudeau has alleged India was behind the June 18th killing of Hardeep Singh Nijjar, a prominent British Columbia Sikh leader who was wanted in India on murder and terrorism charges. India has rejected the charge as “absurd” and angrily denounced Canada as a “safe haven” for “terrorists, extremists and organised crime” – language normally reserved for Pakistan.
Trudeau’s choice of words was ambiguous: Canadian agencies are “actively pursuing credible allegations of a potential link” to Indian agents, not credible evidence of direct involvement. In effect Trudeau said to Modi: we know you are guilty. Now help us prove it. Yet, the onus is on Trudeau to convince India, allies and Canadians, not on Modi to prove the negative. Arindam Bagchi, a Foreign Ministry spokesman, says India is “willing to look at any specific information that is provided to us. But so far, we have not received any”.
The correct procedure would have been to let the police complete investigations, charge alleged killers, give evidence of official complicity in the form of forensic analysis, witness testimony, CCTV and surveillance photo, audio and video corroboration, and only then request Indian assistance in joint investigations and, if required, extradition to facilitate court proceedings in Canada.
This was the template followed by India after the 2008 attack on Mumbai by Pakistan-based terrorists, and by Turkey 10 years later in the murder of Saudi-American journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan went so far as to offer up details on Saudi complicity in an op-ed in the Washington Post. The failure to provide more detail and evidence has generated disquiet even in Canada with the opposition leader, the centre-Left Globe and Mail and the centre-Right National Post all saying that Canadians deserve the full truth.
The main focus of Indian anger is perceived pandering to Khalistani separatists by Trudeau whose minority Government is reliant on the support of the New Democratic Party (NDP) to stay in power. The movement for an independent Khalistan died out in India three decades ago but left a bitter legacy of separatist terrorist outrages and its brutal suppression by police and army units, culminating in the assassination of PM Indira Gandhi and an anti-Sikh pogrom in which 3,000 Sikhs were butchered. Khalistan had more support then in the diaspora community, especially Canada, than in Punjab. In 1985, Sikh extremists blew up an Air India plane flying from Canada to India, killing 329 people including 268 Canadian citizens, the biggest mass murder in Canadian history.
In a Pew Research Survey in 2021, a stunning 95% of Sikhs said they were extremely proud of their Indian identity; 70% said anyone who disrespects India is not a good Sikh; and only 14% said Sikhs face significant discrimination in India. In Canada, however, pro-Khalistan Sikhs exert an outsized influence over Government policy as one of the most politically organised and active communities. Their geographical concentration in Ontario and British Columbia suburbs gives them a critical role in determining the outcome of close elections. Unfortunately, as noted by Omer Aziz, a former foreign policy adviser to Trudeau, diaspora-courting domestic politics often distorts foreign policy priorities.
Trudeau leads a minority Government that depends on the NDP to stay in power. Its Sikh leader Jagmeet Singh is viewed in India, with some justification, as “a known Khalistan promoter and supporter”: a sympathiser at best and an activist at worst. While Indians are exasperated with Trudeau’s pandering to diaspora ‘vote bank’ politics, many Canadians feel growing unease at migrant communities importing the troubles of their homeland into Canada. In a widely-circulated video, Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, Nijjar’s U.S.-based lawyer, has urged Hindu Indo-Canadians to go back to India.
Trudeau has been surprisingly indifferent to the sensitivity of the Sikh factor in Canada-India relations and unwilling to vigorously target terrorist financing from Canada. The issue tainted his previous trip to India in 2018, during which Punjab’s Sikh premier Amarinder Singh gave Trudeau a list of wanted terrorist fugitives that included Nijjar’s name. It resurfaced with his unnecessarily meddlesome support for agitating Sikh farmers in 2020. Indians feel irritated by Trudeau’s supercilious virtue signalling and self-righteousness that has glamourised race- and gender-obsessed identity politics.
Nevertheless, if an uncooperative India is proven guilty in the world court of public opinion, it will deserve unqualified condemnation. But so too will Trudeau if he is judged to have jumped the gun with grave allegations that cannot be substantiated. He will damage his standing in Canada and internationally and worsen already strained relations with India. Attention will focus on the foreign policy risks of diaspora communities and Canada’s reluctance to rein in their excesses. Another example from South Asia is the presence of significant numbers of Sri Lankans and their role, many under coercion from activists, in financing the Tamil Tigers in that country’s civil war.
So far, as noted by the Washington Post and also by Canada’s main national newspaper the Globe and Mail, Canada’s allies have offered only tepid support while attempting to walk the tightrope between an old ally and a growing strategic partner. Canada is a dependable ally but not a first-tier global power and has no realistic alternative to security dependence on the U.S. Its soft-power credentials are a liability when the world has pivoted into a hard-power moment. India is the anchor of the West’s Indo-Pacific strategy. Canada is outside both the Quad group (Australia, India, Japan, U.S.) and Aukus (Australia, UK, U.S.) as the main bulwarks of the emerging resistance front against China. More than putting India in the dock, Christopher Sands, director of the Canada Institute at the Wilson Centre in Washington, told the BBC, Trudeau’s allegations have exposed Canada’s “moment of weakness”.
Modi has cultivated a strongman persona as a muscular nationalist. In the unlikely event that it is confirmed that India executed a successful hit on a wanted alleged terrorist in Canada, international reputational costs notwithstanding, it would give a massive boost to his popularity leading into next year’s elections. In the context of how Western-based diaspora communities can encourage covert operations and military interventions, as in Iraq in 2003, it could also cement India’s reputation in the Global South as a country able to stand up for its interests.
In his address to the UN General Assembly on September 26th, Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar chose the statesman route to refer to the controversy only obliquely yet nonetheless with some pointed remarks that would have played well throughout the Global South. He decried the reality that “it is still a few nations who shape the agenda and seek to define the norms”. This cannot persist indefinitely and will be challenged. Rule-makers cannot go on subjugating rule-takers and we must not “countenance that political convenience determines responses to terrorism, extremism and violence”.
The geographical focus of India’s external intelligence agency is its own neighbourhood and the tools of its tradecraft are bribery and blackmail more than guns. In a public conversation at the Council on Foreign Relations the same day, in answer to a question on the Canada charges, Jaishankar said two things. India had told Canada that such assassinations are not Government policy, but that it would look into specific and relevant information and evidence if such were provided by Ottawa.
Ramesh Thakur, a former UN Assistant Secretary-General, is Emeritus Professor at the Australian National University, Senior Research Fellow at the Toda Peace Institute, and Fellow of the Australian Institute of International Affairs. He is the Editor of The nuclear ban treaty: a transformational reframing of the global nuclear order. This article was first published by the Toda Peace Institute.