Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has issued a fervent call to India to conduct a thorough investigation into credible information that links New Delhi to the assassination of a Sikh separatist activist on Canadian soil. Trudeau’s appeal comes amid escalating tensions between the two nations, stemming from his allegation that has incited a diplomatic dispute with the potential to harm relations significantly.
Speaking on Tuesday, Prime Minister Trudeau emphasised that Canada’s intention was not to provoke or escalate the situation but to present the facts. He pledged that his government would diligently follow the evidence to hold those responsible accountable.
Canada’s assertion that the Indian government may have been involved in the June killing of prominent Sikh leader Hardeep Singh Nijjar has been met with strong denial from New Delhi, which dismissed the claim as “absurd and motivated.”
Experts have raised concerns that this discord threatens to create an unprecedented rift between two important allies of the United States, potentially putting other major Western countries in an uncomfortable position.
In a statement delivered in Parliament on Monday, Trudeau disclosed that Canadian authorities had been investigating “credible allegations” suggesting a possible connection between “agents of the government of India” and Nijjar’s assassination. Hardeep Singh Nijjar, a Sikh Canadian citizen, was gunned down by masked assailants in June, leaving the Sikh community in Canada, one of the largest outside India with more than 770,000 members, in shock.
Canada’s Foreign Affairs Minister, Melanie Joly, further revealed that as a consequence of these allegations, Ottawa had expelled an Indian diplomat, whom she identified as the head of the Indian intelligence agency in the country.
India responded swiftly by rejecting Trudeau’s claims and accusing Canada of harbouring terrorists. It asserted that Canada’s inaction against extremists had long been a concern. In retaliation, India expelled a senior Canadian diplomat from the country.
Hardeep Singh Nijjar was known for his support for the creation of a separate Sikh homeland known as Khalistan, which would encompass parts of India’s Punjab state. The Khalistan movement is outlawed in India, and the government considers it a national security threat. Several groups associated with the movement are listed as “terrorist organisations” under India’s Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA).
Nijjar’s name appears on the Home Ministry’s list of UAPA terrorists, and in 2020, the Indian National Investigation Agency accused him of “trying to radicalise the Sikh community across the world in favour of the creation of ‘Khalistan'” and inciting Sikhs to agitate against the government of India.
Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, a friend and former lawyer of Nijjar, who also appears on India’s UAPA wanted list, disclosed that Nijjar had been warned at least three times by Canadian authorities, including the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, about threats to his life. Pannun runs a New York-based outfit called “Sikhs for Justice,” which advocates for a separate Khalistan state and is considered unlawful in India.
Canadian authorities have not made any arrests in connection with Nijjar’s murder. In an August update, they revealed that they were investigating three suspects and had issued a description of a possible getaway vehicle.
Relations between Canada and India have been cool for several years, and these recent allegations are likely to further strain their ties. Harsh Pant, vice president of foreign policy at the New Delhi-based think tank Observer Research Foundation, described the situation as “quite extraordinary” and expressed pessimism about near-term improvements in relations.
Negotiations for a trade deal between the two countries have been halted due to “serious concerns,” as stated by India’s commerce and trade minister. During the recent Group of 20 (G20) summit hosted by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Trudeau and Modi did not hold a one-on-one meeting, but they met on the summit’s sidelines, where Modi conveyed India’s concerns about anti-India activities by extremist elements in Canada.
Despite the strain in relations, some experts believe that the Canada-India relationship can be salvaged. Michael Kugelman, director of the South Asia Institute at the Wilson Center, noted that Canada is a significant investor in India and has a sizable Indian diaspora. People-to-people relations between the two nations remain strong.
Trudeau’s allegations have also received cautious support from some key allies of Canada, including the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia. The White House expressed deep concern, urging Canada to proceed with its investigations and bring the perpetrators to justice.
The Australian Foreign Minister’s spokesperson acknowledged the concerns of some Australian communities and stressed the importance of a peaceful and safe environment for the Indian diaspora in Australia. The British Prime Minister’s spokesperson commented that Canada’s authorities were right to investigate the matter but refrained from making any preemptive judgments.
The situation continues to evolve, and the international community watches closely as Canada and India navigate this complex diplomatic crisis.