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Nijjar Killing: Looking Beyond India Canada Relations

Updated: Sep 22, 2023

Background Image Courtesy Wikipedia

After a triumphant G 20 presidency marked by a Summit in New Delhi on September 10-11, the allegations by Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of involvement of Indian agencies in the killing of Khalistani separatist leader Hardeep Singh Nijjar has caused a flutter in international circles.

The immediate impact has been on India and Canada relations, which were in any case on a tempestuous path,. Now, these have attained a collision course.

India has rejected the statement by the Canadian Prime Minister. In an official Press Release in no uncertain terms it was stated, “We have seen and reject the statement of the Canadian Prime Minister in their Parliament, as also the statement by their Foreign Minister. Allegations of Government of India's involvement in any act of violence in Canada are absurd and motivated. Similar allegations were made by the Canadian Prime Minister to our Prime Minister, and were completely rejected. We are a democratic polity with a strong commitment to rule of law”.

It is now apparent that the Canadian Prime Minister had informed Prime Minister Narendra Modi of possible Indian involvement which were rejected.

Apart from expelling diplomats by both countries, ostensibly the station chiefs of the intelligence agencies Ministry of External Affairs [MEA] have issued an advisory for Indian Nationals and Indian Students in Canada.

The tone of the advisory has accused the Canadian government of condoning hate crime and criminal violence. It reads, “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. 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”.

The advisory has also said that the security environment in Canada is deteriorating and thus, “Indian students in particular are advised to exercise extreme caution and remain vigilant”.

These are certainly strong statements from the Indian side, even as Canada has rejected the need for the advisory, claiming that the security situation is stable.

That trouble was brewing between India and Canada on the issue of political space provided to Khalistani separatists in the country was evident.

The MEA, in a statement, has succinctly highlighted the issue indicating, “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. That Canadian political figures have openly expressed sympathy for such elements remains a matter of deep concern. The space given in Canada to a range of illegal activities including murders, human trafficking and organised crime is not new”.

“We reject any attempts to connect Government of India to such developments. We urge the Government of Canada to take prompt and effective legal action against all anti-India elements operating from their soil,” the Statement added.

Reaction by Five Eyes

There appears to be tacit support for the Canadian Prime Minister’s allegations, particularly from the Five Eyes Allies – the United States, Australia and the UK while the reaction from New Zealand is not clear so far.US. In a TV programme, National Security Council Spokesperson John Kirby said, "These allegations are serious and we know that Canadians are investigating and we certainly don't want to get ahead of that investigation. We urge India to cooperate in that investigation as well."

"This is kind of an attack that we obviously want to know that it will be handled in a transparent way and that Canadian people can get answers. We are going to stay in touch with our partners - both countries. We want to see the investigation be able to pursue unhindered and let the facts take it where it may," the retired US Navy rear admiral said in the CBS News interview.

Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese indicated that the government does now speak openly of security briefings as part of the Five Eyes group. PM Albanese said, "We don't talk about security briefings from Five Eyes (intelligence alliance), as part of the Five Eyes group."

Foreign Secretary of the UK, James Cleverly, said that all countries should respect sovereignty. "All countries should respect sovereignty and the rule of law. We are in regular contact with our Canadian partners about serious allegations raised in the Canadian Parliament," Cleverly posted on X.

Countering Extremism Abroad

India has been consistently approaching the Canadian authorities to rein in Khalistani separatist activity in that country.

Hardeep Singh Nijjar was a terrorist by Indian security agencies in 2020, accused of supporting attacks in Punjab.

India sought his extradition in 2022 and linked him to the killing of a Hindu priest in Punjab that same year.

Indian Prime Minister also highlighted these aspects to his Canadian counterpart during their meeting on the sidelines of the G 20 Summit. “They [referring to the subversive elements] 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 organised crime, drug syndicates and human trafficking should be a concern for Canada as well,” the statement had said and mentioned that relationship based on mutual respect and trust is essential for the progress of India-Canada relationship

However, the Canadian authorities, given the strong Sikh lobby in that country and the rather liberal approach of the Trudeau government, took limited action over the years, which has been a thorn in relations between the two countries for some time now.

Given the failure of diplomacy in managing India’s concerns on Sikh separatism by Canada, there were limited options before the Indian government but direct decapacitation of Nijjar as alleged by Canada may not have been one of these given the wider implication of the same on India’s geopolitical image and diplomatic stature.

Wider Implications

Despite the rejection of involvement by the Indian government in no uncertain terms, there is a cloud of uncertainty that will continue to hang over the killing.

India is unlikely to participate in a joint investigation as is stated by the United States; on the other hand, further deterioration in relations with Canada with a possible recall of the High Commissioner cannot be ruled out.

Given India’s past record of actions in relation to such incidents with reference to Pakistan, a hard-line approach is likely to lead to shunning Canada in most forums.

Most impacted will be Indian youth who are seeking to study in Canada, the pathway may now become difficult.

Given India’s pivotal role in the Indo-Pacific, there could be soft pedalling of the issue by the West.

At the same time, operatives of India’s external agency, the Research and Analyses Wing (RAW), may face challenges in carrying out their work abroad.

Moreover, it will be some time before India can shed the perception, however untrue it may be, of a state which can conduct clandestine operations on the territory of non-adversarial states.

However States will be forced to act when New Delhi makes requests to contain anti India secessionist and terrorist activities on their soil.

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