IN an unusually blunt statement, India’s Ministry of External Affairs said on September 19, “We reject the statement of the Canadian PM in their Parliament, as also the statement by their Foreign Minister. Allegations of the Government of India’s involvement in any act of violence in Canada are absurd and motivated. We are a democratic polity with a strong commitment to the rule of law.”
The provocation for this strong reaction was Canadian PM Justin Trudeau’s statement in the House of Commons on September 18: “The Canadian security agencies have been actively pursuing credible allegations of a potential link between agents of the Government of India and the killing of a Canadian citizen, Hardeep Singh Nijjar. Any involvement of a foreign government in the killing of a Canadian citizen on Canadian soil is an unacceptable violation of our sovereignty.”
The levelling of such an allegation against the world’s biggest democracy by another democracy is a serious matter. The Canadian PM and his government should have satisfied themselves with the evidence collected before making such a charge. It was clear from the text of Trudeau’s statement — “credible allegations of a potential link” — and the remarks of Opposition leader Pierre Poilievre that they had simply jumped the gun under pressure from pro-Khalistan elements in the New Democratic Party (NDP), whose political support is crucial for the survival of the Trudeau government.
Trudeau had a testy meeting with PM Modi on September 10 when he visited India for the G20 summit. Modi had conveyed Delhi’s strong concerns over continuing anti-India activities of extremist elements in Canada, which were promoting “secessionism, inciting violence against Indian diplomats, threatening the Indian community in Canada and their places of worship”. Modi told him that there could not be progress in the bilateral ties without “trust and mutual respect”.
Who was Nijjar and why is Trudeau backing him? Nijjar was a proclaimed terrorist who had more than 10 terror cases and an Interpol Red Corner Notice against him for contract killings in Punjab, funding secessionist activities and smuggling of weapons into India. Nijjar was associated with the Babbar Khalsa International and later became the head of the Khalistan Tiger Force; he was being supported by Pakistan’s ISI and helped in recruitment and funding for the Khalistan movement. Nijjar, who was killed outside a gurdwara in Surrey in June this year, had been working with Jagmeet Singh Dhaliwal’s NDP.
Canada has about 7.7 lakh Sikhs, accounting for about 2 per cent of its population in a 17 lakh-strong Indian community. Only a small but vocal minority of Sikhs support the demand for Khalistan. The Sikhs have majority influence in eight parliamentary seats and substantial presence in 15 other seats. There are 18 Sikh MPs in Parliament and three Sikh ministers in Trudeau’s cabinet. His Liberal Party (LP) has 157 seats in the 338-member Parliament and needs the support of 24 members of the NDP to stay in power. Dhaliwal has allegedly been putting pressure on Trudeau to get Nijjar’s killing probed and avenged.
PM Trudeau has been insensitive to India’s numerous requests to check the secessionist and violent activities of Khalistani elements. He attended a parade in May 2017 which glorified the separatist activities of Khalistani militants. In March this year, Khalistan supporters held violent protests outside the Indian Mission and consulates in Canada. Khalistan supporters took out rallies in July, carrying posters with photos of Indian High Commissioner SK Verma and other diplomats, whom they threatened to kill to avenge Nijjar’s murder. In June, a tableau was taken out in Brampton, glorifying the assassins of former PM Indira Gandhi. This is the track record of Canada, a G7 country, under Trudeau.
Incidentally, Trudeau’s father, former PM Pierre Trudeau, was also supportive of Khalistani militants. In 1982, he had declined to extradite Talwinder Singh Parmar, who was accused of killing two police officers in Punjab. Parmar and the Babbar Khalsa had plotted the Air India Kanishka bombing of June 1985, which claimed the lives of 329 civilians, included 80 children. It took Canada 20 years to conduct a sham investigation, according to which the bombing took place due to a “cascading series of errors” by the Canadian Government, its security and intelligence agencies. Only one person was convicted; others were set free.
The Justin Trudeau government went overboard by expelling a senior Indian diplomat, Pavan Kumar Rai, from the Indian High Commission in Ottawa. India retaliated by ordering the expulsion of a senior Canadian diplomat, Olivier Sylvester, “for interference and involvement in anti-India activities.” Both sides have issued travel advisories to their nationals, urging caution.
Trudeau’s reckless actions have resulted in the India-Canada relations hitting a new low. At a time when both countries should be working together to fight serious challenges to global peace, security and the current international order, Canada has picked up an unnecessary fracas with India. Trudeau has tried to rope in the G7 and the Five Eyes (the US, Canada, the UK, Australia and New Zealand) countries to put pressure on India. But he has only received mild support. The spat may have an impact on bilateral trade (during 2022-23, the trade was worth $8.28 billion — $4.11 billion India’s exports, $4.17 billion imports) as negotiations for a free trade agreement have been postponed.
Trudeau’s popularity rating at home has plummeted due to his poor handling of the economy. A public opinion poll conducted last month found that 56 per cent of the Canadians wanted him to step down. But Trudeau is keen to continue till the next polls in October 2025. India will need to ensure that the Trudeau government’s support to Khalistani elements is kept in check and does not lead to internationalisation and revival of the Khalistan movement.
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