CANADIAN PM Justin Trudeau, during a press conference in Montreal last week, toned down his rhetoric regarding the alleged involvement of India in the killing of terrorist Hardeep Singh Nijjar, while emphasising India’s significance on the global stage. Nevertheless, the ongoing tensions between India and Canada are unlikely to dissipate in the near future.
Trudeau’s announcement in the House of Commons on India’s ‘hand’ in the killing is merely an inflection point among various contentious issues.
To fully understand the dynamics underpinning this heightened acrimony, one must first be sensitive to the differing legal and political frameworks that impede mutual understanding between the two countries. Currently, they are talking at each other rather than talking to each other. Canada’s political rhetoric is rooted in multiculturalism, which means that all identities are encouraged to celebrate their cultures. This is in contrast to the policy of its southern neighbour, the US, which is often referred to as a melting pot. Post-9/11, the US has been taking swift action against hate speech that breeds violent extremism.
With a population of 40 million, and with more than two-thirds of its landmass uninhabitable, Canada’s track record in attracting people from around the world is impressive. However, this accommodation leaves little room for nuances, as migrants arriving from various parts of the world may exaggerate claims of political victimisation in their countries of origin, which are far from developed or rich, to manipulate the immigration process.
In India, the Constitution, through Article 19 (2), imposes reasonable restrictions on the freedom of speech in the interest of security and sovereignty of the country, and also friendly relations with foreign states. For instance, Saudi Arabia and other Muslim-majority countries, including Iran, Kuwait and Qatar, described a BJP spokesperson’s comments in 2022 as ‘insulting’ and called for ‘respect for beliefs and religions’ when she made disparaging remarks about the Prophet. Such utterances are liable under appropriate provisions of the Indian Penal Code. Similar provisions restricting freedom of speech do not exist in Canada or some other Western countries.
Some may argue that India, which has a large diaspora presence, should adopt a thick-skinned approach unless there is a clear and tangible threat to national security or serving diplomats.
External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar, at a press conference in Washington DC, alleged that there was a “climate of violence” and an “atmosphere of intimidation” against Indian diplomats in Canada. Apart from the threats of violence, which can only be addressed by host countries, Indian diplomats in North America — based on this author’s several years of experience and interactions in that region — are generally aware of the dynamics within the diaspora. They have been able to develop a counter-narrative with the help of more prosperous and articulate members of the diaspora, including people of various ethnic or religious backgrounds. This was true of Canada as well till recently. In this age, where communication flows quickly, the domestic and foreign lines for a section of the diaspora may get blurred. That is why a more calibrated approach is required that factors in the broader strategic goals and objectives.
One has to pay attention to what former British Columbia Premier Ujjal Dosanjh, a known voice of moderate Sikhs in Canada, stated recently in an interview. He said, “Between 2020 and 2021, the state of Punjab in particular was very much the focus of the farmers’ agitation against the Modi government and the BJP, which wanted to deregulate the farming sector. And that agitation created a groundswell of mobilisation in the diaspora, which rekindled some of the old networks of militancy and homeland politics.” The fact is that during this agitation in north India, statements by some members of the ruling party misrepresented the farmers as violent secessionists. It has turned out that they were not completely ignored by inimical forces outside India, who were looking for an opportunity to fish in troubled waters. An alert diplomacy on the ground would have reported back these developments to the political elite in India and proactive action should have followed.
Within the current context of India-Canada tensions, the US cannot be ignored, as evidenced by Jaishankar’s meetings with National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken. Both Canada and India hold significance for the US. Canada is an ally of the US and its soldiers have participated in various US-led military operations. This is not true for India, which has consistently jettisoned such calls. Punjab-born Harjit Singh Sajjan, who served as Canada’s Defence Minister till 2021, had three stints in Afghanistan under the US command. Western countries, including the US, are highly sensitive to any allegation of foreign involvement on its soil. And Canada is too close for the US to ignore when a charge of foreign hand on its soil is made. Incidents of Israeli spy agents arrested in the US exemplify the sensitivity of the matter. There is also the case of US citizen Jonathan Pollard, who was convicted of espionage in 1987 for passing on secrets to Israel. The political cost of such Western allegations may not be in consonance with India’s broader strategic goals and objectives.
Canada’s own violent militant movement led by the Front de libération du Québec should make it sensitive to India’s concerns about violent extremism, though the context may be different. There are examples where Indian citizens have been killed by gangsters. The alleged killers of Indian origin in Canada didn’t hesitate from claiming responsibility for their acts on their social media handles. The interplay of organised crime and violent secessionism is not in the interest of democracies. Both India and Canada are signatories to the General Assembly-mandated UN Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy. Addressing hate speech and money laundering are part of this strategy. These multilateral commitments should be underlined at various levels as quiet diplomacy should take precedence over megaphone diplomacy.
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