EXTERNAL Affairs Minister S Jaishankar has countered Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s statement in the House of Commons about evidence pointing to India’s hand in the killing of Khalistani terrorist Hardeep Singh Nijjar, both at the 78th session of the United Nations General Assembly and in his interaction with a think tank, the Council on Foreign Relations. He pointed to the broader context of the activities of extremists in Canada, and how despite Indian urgings, Ottawa was not responsive.
He also made it clear that if evidence was presented on the Nijjar killing, India would look into it with an open mind. Jaishankar’s factual presentation does not, however, drive away the suspicion created by Trudeau’s statement because it is based on US intelligence inputs. And there is the question of how the whole thing played itself out in the last few weeks.
Trudeau made his statement when he went back from New Delhi after attending the G20 summit, held under India’s presidency. It does not seem to have been a happy meeting for him or for his host, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, when they met on the sidelines of the summit. The Indian statement on the meeting said Modi scolded Trudeau and asked him to curb the anti-India activities of extremist elements. Trudeau let it be known later that he brought up the issue of the possible involvement of agents of the Indian Government in Nijjar’s killing with Modi in Delhi. And he also said that the information was shared with allies of Canada, meaning the US and the UK.
Surprisingly or unsurprisingly, the Indian statement about the meeting did not mention that Trudeau had brought up the Nijjar issue. India perhaps could have stolen Trudeau’s thunder had it done so. But later, the Indian Foreign Ministry spokesman said the issue was brought up earlier, implying that it came up in the Modi-Trudeau meeting as well. India said it had asked for specific evidence for it to act upon, but none was shared by the Canadian side.
Meanwhile, the US Ambassador to Canada, David Cohen, said the information about the ‘Indian hand’ was given by the US, but refused to elaborate. Trudeau did not admit that it was not the discovery of the Canadian investigating agencies and that the clues were provided by the US. The Americans, too, said that they had taken up the matter with India, but they did not say whether President Joe Biden took it up with PM Modi.
India said it had suspended the issuance of visas by its missions in Canada because of the threat of violence to its staff, and once the situation returned to normal, the visa services will be resumed. But when asked whether visas would be issued to Canadian nationals in third countries, the answer was evasive. It is interesting that the Indian diplomat expelled by Canada was an IPS officer who served in Punjab and later with the Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW). But we do not know much about the Canadian diplomat (Olivier Sylvester) that India expelled in retaliation.
Canada should have given the evidence, if any, to India. This would have nailed the facts, once and for all. But Canada seems to be fighting shy because it does not have clinching evidence or it fears that uncomfortable facts about Nijjar’s activities, and of the inter-gang rivalry among Sikh groups in Canada, will be revealed.
The issue will die out sooner than later, and India-Canada relations will take a little longer to get back to normal. But there are two things that will remain of interest long after this episode is over. First, why did this issue come up at the time of the G20 summit, and was there an understanding among various parties that it would not be raised because that would overshadow the important summit, not just for India but for all other major players? If Trudeau was in possession of ‘explosive’ information that he made public much later, should he not have avoided attending the summit?
If the issue was looming large over the summit in Delhi, were all those allies of Canada who were in the know not keen to raise it because they did not want to spoil India’s moment in the sun? And as India appears to be the newly adopted member of the Western club of democratic countries led by the US, why did Trudeau choose to break rank and make public what should have remained a confidential matter to be handled behind closed doors between the Indian and Canadian governments? Is it because he came under immense pressure from the Sikh lobby backing his coalition government? The political compulsion to disclose sensitive details also weakens his argument about the protection of Canadian citizens and sovereignty. More importantly, what are the implications of diaspora nationalism in building a multi-ethnic Canadian polity?
On the Indian side, there are enough hotheads to argue that India must take care of its national interests in the country and abroad, and they cite the acts of America’s Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in carrying out assassinations abroad, officially or unofficially. Indian hawks would like to argue that India should become an assertive world power, and that acts of assassination are part of the playbook of global realpolitik. This would require a serious rethink among the security experts at home and also in the BJP. Even if India can cross the red lines, should it be doing so? Is it not better to exercise restraint when you can use force? There should also be a review of encouraging diaspora nationalism, which has become an instrument of foreign policy under BJP governments. Indians who are citizens of other countries should not be playing politics in the home country. It would be a good thumb rule that can easily shut up stray groups talking of Khalistan.
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