I have been closely observing Indo-Canada relations since 1982 when I was posted as deputy high commissioner in Ottawa. During my tenure, I also served as the acting high commissioner from 1983 to 1985 after the high commissioner’ left. It was a difficult period marked by the Blue Star Operation in June 1984 and the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in October 1984. After the Blue Star Operation, I was attacked by Khalistani extremists while paying an official visit to Manitoba. I was fortunate to escape serious injury or worse, thanks to the quick response of the RCMP (Royal Canadian Mounted Police), though had they been more alert, eggs would not have fallen on my head. The ministry of external affairs summoned the Canadian high commissioner in New Delhi, and I received a personal letter of regret and apology from the Canadian Prime Minister a few days later, for which I expressed my gratitude.
Now, the Khalistan issue has been adversely affecting Indo-Canadian relations for a while, especially after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau assumed office in 2015. Let’s review the chronology of recent events. On 18 September 2023, Trudeau stated in the House of Commons that there were “credible allegations” regarding the “involvement of agents of the Indian government” in the killing of Hardeep Singh Nijjar, a Canadian citizen.
‘If proven true…’
It is worth noting that Trudeau used the term “allegations,” indicating that he does not claim to possess concrete evidence. If so, why did foreign minister Melanie Joly announce the expulsion of a senior Indian diplomat, head of the Research and Analysis Wing in Canada, holding the title of Minister in the High Commission? She referred to the ‘allegations’ and added, “If proven true, this would be a violation of our sovereignty…”
The words, if proven true, establish that the investigation is ongoing. It is intriguing that Trudeau did not wait for the investigation’s conclusion. It is possible that the RCMP has enough evidence to say with a degree of confidence that the Indian intelligence was involved, presumably on the basis of electronic evidence, as the two ‘heavy set men’ who fired the shots and a third person who drove the getaway vehicle remain at large.
Another important point to consider is that when suspicion initially arose regarding India’s involvement, Canada had the option to request the transfer of the individual in question and take appropriate action against the perpetrators. Perhaps Trudeau did not consider this option, or perhaps his pro-Khalistani supporters dissuaded him from pursuing it. One can only speculate about Trudeau’s motives. He did not secure a majority in the last election, and his government is losing support. To remain in office he needs the support of members of parliament from the Sikh community especially of Jagmeet Singh, leader of the NPD (New Democratic Party), known to be a staunch supporter of Khalistan.
Who loses, who gains?
It is painfully clear that both India and Canada stand to lose significantly if this discord is not resolved soon. Canada has a substantial Indian diaspora, comprising nearly 3% of its population of 38.7 million. Trudeau’s cabinet includes three Sikh ministers of Indian origin. Bilateral trade in goods amounted to $10.50 billion in 2022, with India exporting goods worth $6.40 billion. Trade in services reached $5.85 billion. Additionally, Canadian Pension Funds have invested $55 billion in the Indian stock market, and 600 Canadian companies operate in India, while several Indian companies have a presence in Canada.
Although it is not suggested that Canada will immediately withdraw from India. The potential for mutually beneficial economic cooperation has been hardly tapped till now. Both countries stand to benefit greatly from the trade and investment agreement that has been under negotiation for years. Canada has requested a pause in negotiations, and unless this discord is resolved, talks may not resume.
The recent thaw in ties has confused Indian students in Canada, especially after India issued a travel advisory to its citizens, urging them to “exercise utmost caution” in view of “growing anti-India activities and politically condoned hate crimes and criminal violence in Canada”. In 2022, the total number of Indian students in Canada was 230,000 and the number is likely to grow this year. The Indian advisory was issued after Canada’s advisory to its nationals, asking them to “avoid all travel to the Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir due to the unpredictable security situation” and due to a “threat of terrorism, militancy, civil unrest and kidnapping.”
Trudeau, who was denied a formal bilateral meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the G20 did meet with the host on the sidelines of the summit and discussed the matter with him, who rejected the allegations. The Canadian intelligence chief engaged with his Indian counterpart, but after India rejected Canada’s claims, cooperation in the investigation was unlikely.
However, I believe that it would have been better if India had agreed to cooperate, expressing its skepticism about Canada’s case. In that scenario, India could have examined the evidence collected by the RCMP and refuted Canada’s “allegation” with greater force than a blank denial.
The tussle with India puts Canada’s Western allies on the spot. Canada is part of the famous “Five Eyes” intelligence alliance, which includes the US, the UK, Australia, and New Zealand. Trudeau reportedly instructed his intelligence chief to share evidence with these counterparts and seek a joint finding and announcement. However, the US and others declined, as they did not want to upset India.
Australia did engage with India on this matter at the official level while Washington expressed “deep concern” over the allegations, emphasizing the need to bring the “perpetrators” to justice. That was on the 19 September. After coming under criticism, the next day, Washington publicly urged India to “cooperate” with Canada in the investigation. The UK maintained that this issue did not hinder ongoing trade talks. Though Trudeau had earlier spoken about his plans to talk to French President Macron, we have not heard anything from the latter till now.
It is crucial not to personalize this issue as a diplomatic duel between Trudeau and Modi. Both leaders should cease public exchanges through the media. Instead, each should appoint a Special Representative without public announcement. These representatives should meet at a neutral venue, away from media scrutiny, and work toward a compromise that can be presented to their respective governments for consideration. This discord is not insurmountable and can be resolved, or rather dissolved, through diplomatic channels.
However, it seems that bilateral relations may deteriorate further before improving. Neither side is engaging in constructive dialogue, and public diplomacy, including the expulsion of diplomats and the issuance of travel advisories on a tit-for-tat basis, is in full swing. Let us hope that wiser counsel will prevail, and de-escalation will commence as soon as possible.
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