Rarely have two major democracies descended into as ugly a diplomatic spat as the one now unfolding between Canada and India. With the traditionally friendly relationship already at its lowest point ever, both sides are now engaging in quiet diplomacy to arrest the downward spiral, using the US, a Canadian ally and Indian partner, as the intermediary, but even if the current diplomatic ruckus eases, Canada’s tolerance of Sikh separatist activity on its territory would continue to bedevil bilateral ties.
The current dispute began when Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau sensationally claimed that there were “credible allegations” about a “potential link” between the Indian government and the fatal shooting in June of Hardeep Singh Nijjar, a Sikh separatist and Canadian citizen, on Canadian soil. The Indian government fired back by demanding that Canada reduces its diplomatic staff in India, suspending new visas for Canadians, and accusing the country of making “absurd” accusations to divert attention from its status as “a safe haven for terrorists.”
Nijjar was hardly the only Sikh separatist living in Canada. In fact, the country has emerged as the global hub of the militant movement for “Khalistan,” or an independent Sikh homeland. The separatists constitute a small minority of the Sikh diaspora, concentrated in the Anglosphere, especially Canada. Sikhs living in India — who overwhelmingly report that they are proud to be Indian — do not support the separatist cause.
With British Columbia as their operational base, the separatists are waging a strident campaign glorifying political violence. For example, they have erected billboards advocating the killing of Indian diplomats (with photos), honored jailed or killed terrorists as “martyrs,” built a parade float on which the assassination of former Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi was re-enacted, and staged attacks on Indian diplomatic missions in Canada. They have also held referendums on independence for Khalistan in Canada.
However, much to India’s frustration, Canada has been reluctant to take strong action to rein in Sikh separatism. Trudeau’s first official visit to India in 2018 turned into a disaster, after it was revealed that a convicted Sikh terrorist, who had spent years in a Canadian prison following the attempted assassination of a visiting Indian state cabinet minister, had made it onto the Canadian guest list. At last month’s G20 summit in New Delhi, Modi gave Trudeau a dressing-down for being soft on violent extremists.
It was against this tense backdrop that Trudeau made his allegations about Nijjar’s murder. When countries link foreign agents to a domestic death — for example, in 2010, when the Dubai police chief accused Mossad, Israel’s intelligence service, of killing a Hamas commander in a local luxury hotel — they typically present video, audio or forensic evidence. They also mostly avoid blaming the government that the foreign agents represent.
Trudeau, by contrast, cast blame directly on the Indian government without presenting a scintilla of evidence. He said the allegations are based on credible intelligence, apparently from a “Five Eyes” partner country (Australia, New Zealand, the UK or the US), but refuses to declassify the information or share it with Indian authorities.
Trudeau apparently has not provided “any facts” even to Canadian opposition leader Pierre Poilievre, a member of the Privy Council. Premier of British Columbia, the province where the killing occurred, the intelligence briefing he received on the matter included only information “available to the public doing an internet search.”
Meanwhile, Canadian investigators have not made a single arrest in the case. This has left many wondering to what extent Canada’s powerful, but unaccountable intelligence establishment controls its foreign policy.
In any case, there is no doubt that Sikh radicals wield real political influence in Canada, including as funders. Trudeau keeps his minority government afloat with the help of Jagmeet Singh, the New Democratic Party’s Sikh leader and a Khalistan sympathizer. A former foreign policy adviser to Trudeau’s government said that action was not taken to choke off financing for the Khalistani militants because “Trudeau did not want to lose the Sikh vote” to Singh.
Canada must wake up to the threat posed by its Sikh militants. Rising drug-trade profitability and easy gun availability in British Columbia have contributed to internecine infighting among Khalistan radicals in the province. The volatile combination of Sikh militancy, the drug trade, and gangland killings has serious implications for Canadian security, but it is not only Canadians who are in danger.
Under Trudeau’s father, then-Canadian prime minister Pierre Trudeau, Canada’s reluctance to rein in or extradite Sikh extremists wanted in India for terrorism led to the 1985 twin bombings targeting Air India flights. One attack killed all 329 passengers, most of whom were of Indian origin, on a flight from Toronto; the other misfired, killing two baggage handlers at Narita Airport in Tokyo. With Khalistani militants continuing to idolize Talwinder Singh Parmar — the terrorist that two separate Canadian inquiries identified as the mastermind behind the bombings — history is in danger of repeating itself.
By reopening old wounds, not least those created by the Air India attacks, Trudeau’s accusations have created a rare national consensus in fractious and highly polarized India, with many calling for the government to put sustained pressure on Canada to start cleaning up its act.
However, more bitterness and recriminations would not restore the bilateral relationship. For that, both sides must use effective, cooperative diplomacy to address each other’s concerns.
Brahma Chellaney, professor of strategic studies at the New Delhi-based Center for Policy Research and fellow at the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin, is the author of nine books, including Water: Asia’s New Battleground, for which he won the 2012 Asia Society Bernard Schwartz Book Award.
Copyright: Project Syndicate
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