What are the allegations levelled against India? Why does India accuse Canada of providing safe havens to pro-Khalistan extremists? How have other countries reacted? Why have visa services been suspended? What is the status of the Free Trade Agreement?
Hours before parliamentarians in India were getting ready for a special session in the new Parliament building in Delhi on Tuesday, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau stood up in the Canadian Parliament in Ottawa to make a startling announcement. He alleged that agents of the Indian government were involved in the killing of a Canadian national, Hardeep Singh Nijjar, declared a terrorist as the head of the Khalistani Tiger Force (KTF) in India. Nijjar, 45, was shot dead by two masked gunmen as he left a gurdwara in Surrey in June this year. Despite the Canadian Prime Minister admitting that the investigation was still being pursued, his government had already decided to expel a senior diplomat from the Indian High Commission.
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How did India react?
The allegations came a week after Mr. Trudeau was in India for the G-20 summit, and a stormy bilateral “pull-aside” meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi. After the meeting both sides issued readouts pointing fingers at each other for “foreign interference in Canada’s affairs” and “providing safe havens to anti-India extremists” respectively, but neither had revealed at the time that Nijjar’s killing had been discussed. In addition, it emerged that Canadian National Security Adviser (NSA) Jody Thomas had travelled to India twice in the past month, to discuss the case with India’s NSA Ajit Doval, although the government repeatedly said that no “specific evidence” had been provided by Canada. However, reports in the U.S media have suggested that Canada shared evidence with partners in the “Five Eyes” intelligence alliance comprising the U.S., the U.K., Canada, Australia and New Zealand prior to the G-20 summit, and that some of their leaders had discussed the issue with Mr. Modi.
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After Mr. Trudeau spoke in Parliament, India responded in kind, and expelled a Canadian diplomat. The Canadian High Commissioner to India, Cameron McKay, was issued a demarche over the allegations, and told to downsize the mission strength of diplomats, some of whom, the Ministry of External (MEA) Affairs said, were interfering in India’s domestic matters. The MEA categorically denied Mr. Trudeau’s allegations, calling them “absurd”, but pointed out that not just Nijjar, many people wanted for Khalistani separatist violence in India received “safe haven” in Canada, despite a number of representations by India for their extradition. India has also suspended visa services across Canada, and will not accept applications from Canadians at any other mission worldwide, the MEA said, citing security concerns.
What’s the evidence on the Nijjar killing?
Mr. Trudeau is yet to release any specific evidence tying India to the killing, which if proven would constitute a violation of “Canadian sovereignty” and “international rule of law”. Canadian government sources were quoted by Canada’s public television CBC as saying that there was both SIGINT (Signal Intelligence) and HUMINT (Human Intelligence) inputs that included communications between diplomats within the Indian High Commission pointing to the Nijjar killing. If so, this would also mean that Canadian security agencies had surveillance operations targeting the Indian mission, a violation of diplomatic protocol.
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How did the ‘Five Eyes’ Alliance respond?
Each of the Five Eyes countries, a grouping that came together in the post-Second World war era, have issued statements expressing concern over Canada’s allegations and called on India to cooperate with the investigation. The U.S. Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken, Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong, British Foreign Secretary James Cleverly and New Zealand Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta have all made statements, yet none so far has gone further in backing the evidence Canada claims it has. Their reactions were also in sharp contrast to the “Skripal case” in the U.K., where the British government accused Russian agents of poisoning a former Russian operative and his daughter. Within days, each of the Five Eyes countries had expelled several Russian diplomats from their capitals, and the contrast in action now indicates a desire not to upset New Delhi as they deepen their strategic partnership with India.
However, U.S. NSA Jake Sullivan said the U.S. would not give India any “special exemption” if Mr. Trudeau’s allegations were proven. While Indian officials deny the allegation of an assassination, several former Indian diplomats have pointed to a “western double standard”, where the U.S.’s killing of designated terrorists in drone strikes or operations, including the killing of Iranian General Soleimani in Iraq or al-Qaeda chief Osama Bin Laden in Pakistan, is proudly proclaimed, but a similar operation allegedly carried out by India faces such scrutiny.
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What is at the root of India-Canada tensions?
Tensions between India and Canada over the Khalistan issue have always run high, and are the primary reason why no Indian Prime Minister made a bilateral visit to Canada between 1973 and 2015, barring Manmohan Singh who visited Toronto in 2010 for the G-20 summit held there. This was because from the late ’70s onwards, the rise of the Khalistani separatist movement in Punjab was accompanied by an increase in support for the movement from a part of the Sikh diaspora, particularly in countries like Canada, the U.S. and the U.K. While India engaged every country with its concerns, Canada proved the most difficult, as the Canadian government and politicians took the stand that many in the diaspora were fleeing human rights violations by Indian security forces in Punjab. For example, when India requested the extradition of Khalistani leader Talvinder Singh Parmar in 1982, Canada rejected it. A few years later, Parmar masterminded the bombing of the Air India flight 182 from Toronto to Mumbai in June 1985, in which 329 were killed.
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What lies ahead?
Even though Mr. Modi attempted a reset in ties with his visit to Canada in 2015, relations have been rocky. Mr. Trudeau’s ‘return’ visit to India in 2018 was dogged by controversies, including the appearance of a Khalistan supporter at his dinner reception. New Delhi froze engagements with Ottawa after Mr. Trudeau criticised Mr. Modi’s handling of the farmers’ protests in India in 2020, and they only restarted after a Modi-Trudeau meeting on the sidelines of the G-7 summit in Germany in 2022, following which the two sides began to negotiate a Free Trade Agreement (FTA). After the Nijjar killing, Canada cancelled a trade delegation visit to Delhi, put FTA talks on pause and the $55 billion investment in India from Canadian Pension Funds may also be affected. Between them India and Canada issued half a million visas to each other’s citizens last year; Canada accepted 2,26,000 Indian students, and the Indian diaspora in Canada today stands at 1.4 million. India’s decision to suspend visas to Canadians could see reciprocal action by Canada that would affect hundreds of thousands awaiting their visas including students and professionals. Already, the cancellation of trade talks and visas means this is the lowest point in decades, as in the past when political engagement was called off, people-to-people ties had been allowed to continue.