Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has literally set the cat among the pigeons. Trudeau has declared that there are ‘credible allegations’ about the involvement of agents of the Indian Government in the June 18 killing of a Canadian Sikh, Hardeep Singh Nijjar, outside a gurdwara of which he was the head. Nijjar had been declared a terrorist by the Indian Government and had a bounty on his head. It would be out of character, however, for the Indian State to be involved in his murder, which has all the hallmarks of gang warfare. The unsavoury antecedents of Nijjar support such a conclusion. Whatever be the truth of the matter, India has taken a reputational hit, which is all the more damaging, coming so soon after a successful G20 summit. Relations with Canada, a Commonwealth country with a large Indian diaspora and a key partner in any Indo-Pacific strategy, have hit rock bottom.
There is an element of personal pique against India due to what Trudeau perceived was a cold shoulder given to him on his previous visit to India in 2018.
In dealing with this crisis, India must take a sober view of the following aspects:
One, while the US, UK, western Europe and Japan consider India an indispensable partner in countervailing China’s expanding power, there are limits to this partnership. What may be ignored in the context of relations with China may not be the case when a fellow NATO ally and G7 partner is involved. This was abundantly clear in the statement made by US NSA Jake Sullivan on the issue: “There is not some special exemption you get for actions like this. Regardless of the country, we will stand up and defend our basic principles. And we will consult closely with our allies like Canada as they pursue their law enforcement and diplomatic process.”
India has dismissed the allegations of its involvement in the killing as “absurd and motivated.” This does not mean the end of the story. Being in the public domain, India’s response must go beyond angry denials and excoriating Trudeau for ignoring terrorist activities which a section of the Canadian Sikh population has been involved in. This has a long history. However, in the present case, the Indian narrative should really have focused on the criminal gangster activities indulged in by the likes of Nijjar. The emphasis on Nijjar’s politics and his indulgence in violent and terrorist activities may sound as a justification for his killing among elements which are already deeply prejudiced against the Modi government. Whatever information our agencies have on such criminal activities, which are sometimes pursued under a camouflage of political activism, could be shared with Canada and our other Western partners.
India has rightly and firmly rejected the allegations made by Trudeau. It has done the appropriate thing by expelling a Canadian diplomat in response to a similar action taken by Canada. However, it is in the interest of neither country nor in the interest of India’s close and expanding partnership with its Western partners to let matters escalate. The partnership with the US and other Western partners cannot be insulated from what happens in the India-Canada relations. And if there is a spillover of the worsening relations between India and Canada into our ties with our key Indo-Pacific and European allies, this will be a welcome bonus for our main adversaries, China and Pakistan.
There is a domestic political dimension which is even more important. In putting the Trudeau government in the wrong and attacking a section of the Sikh population in Canada for its support to Khalistan, this rhetoric must not be allowed to alienate the large majority of Sikhs in Canada and other foreign countries and, most importantly in India, among whom the Khalistan movement has no takers. There may be a temptation to highlight this threat, but this may have unintended collateral consequences.
It is easy to see what personal interest Trudeau may have in raking up this issue and targeting India. One, there is an investigation underway of foreign interference in Canadian domestic politics which may spotlight the Trudeau government’s reluctance to confront Chinese activities in the country. The latest incident may help deflect attention from that well-documented indulgence.
Two, the Trudeau government is dependent for its survival on the support of the ethnic Sikh political party, the New Democratic Party (NDP), which has several pro-Khalistan elements. Trudeau’s allegations against India may have been triggered by his need to keep the NDP firmly in his camp at a time of his sharply diminishing political popularity.
Three, there is an element of personal pique against India due to what he perceived was a cold shoulder given to him on his previous visit to India in 2018. Trudeau himself described the visit as “a visit to end all visits”. It may be this personal antipathy to India which may have tipped the balance in favour of his going public with his outrageous allegations.
But the relationship with Trudeau as an individual should not be allowed to define India’s relationship with Canada. This is an important relationship from the political, strategic and economic perspectives. The trajectory of the India-Canada relations will also impact India’s ties with the US and other G7 countries. One should also be careful that our diplomatic and public relations offensive against Trudeau does not, as a collateral, adversely impact the sentiments of the vast majority of Sikhs both in India and abroad. One already sees signs of rising discomfort over this among people in Punjab. Interrupting family visits may not be the most effective way of displaying displeasure towards the Trudeau government.
One hopes that further escalation in the deteriorating relations can be avoided.
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