Overnight- ties between India and Canada, already quite tense, took a turn for the worse- within days of returning from Delhi where he attended the G20 summit, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made a startling announcement in parliament.
The allegations were roundly denied by the government, and have started a diplomatic war, both in words, and on the ground. Here’s what happened.
1. In his speech to parliament, Canadian PM Trudeau accused India of the killing of Khalistani separatist leader Hardip Singh Nijjar- who was shot dead by gunmen while leaving a Gurdwara on June 18, 2023. A quick note on Nijjar
Nijjar the chief of an outfit called Khalistan Tiger Force is wanted by India for a number of terror cases and bombings in India in the 1990s, and for funding terror operations in India from Canada’s Surrey, where he served on the Gurdwara management committee In 2016, a red corner notice was issued for him
In 2020, Nijjar was declared a terrorist under the UAPA listing that accused him operationalizing, funding and training KTF members, and seditious and insurrectionary hate speech
In 2022, India declared a reward of 10 lakh rupees for information leading to his arrest
2. Trudeau pointed to India for the killing, citing “credible allegations” being pursued, he said that he had raised the issue directly with PM Modi during the G20 summit meeting
3. Trudeau announced an Indian diplomat was being expelled – later the name of the diplomat was leaked to the media, something not as per diplomatic norms
4. India reacted within hours. Summoned the Canadian High commissioner and denied the allegations
-Expelled a Canadian diplomat, his name too was leaked in the media
-Suspended all visa operations for Canadians, citing security threats
-Told the Canadian High Commission to cut down numbers of its diplomats, accusing them of running domestic interference in India
-And at an MEA briefing said that no evidence has been shared by Canada, nor has any action been taken by Canada on Indian concerns over growing Khalistani groups there.
No specific information has been shared by Canada on this case, either then or before or after. We have, you know, as we have said, or I think we have made very clear, we are willing to look at any specific information. We have conveyed this to the Canadian side, made it clear to them that we are willing to look at any specific information that is provided to us. But so far we have not received any such specific information. There was an indirect question on that. Let me also point out that from our side, very specific evidence about criminal activities by individuals based on Canadian soil has been shared with the Canadian authorities on a regular basis, but not been acted upon.” Arindam Bagchi, MEA Spokesperson
5. The Canadian government also said it is in touch with allies of the Five eyes.
The Five Eyes intelligence partnership was founded in 1946, after the UK and US began a cooperation on Signals Intelligence, and expanded to Canada in 1948 and Australia and New Zealand in 1956- that grew during the Cold war era. Officials from the Five eyes meet regularly and communicate in real time to share intelligence.
As a result, India-Canada tensions on the issue have had several effect across relations:
1. Political meetings: Modi and Trudeau had an acrimonious meeting on the sidelines of the G20, and both issued tough statements after. I will just come to the history of high level engagement.
2. Trade relations: Canada has put a pause on Free Trade talks, and cancelled a trade delegation visit to India this month Trade is worth about $10 billion at present
3. Strategic ties: India’s role in Canadian Indo-Pacific strategy, and India-Canada talks on counter terrorism strategy will both be affected
4. Visas: With India suspending visas for Canadians, there may be reciprocal action. Remember, each year 300,000 Indian visas were issued last year by Canada and 2,77,000 Canadians visited India in 2022
5. Investment: Roughly $55 billion cumulatively in Indian investments by Canadian Pension funds Education ties- about 40% of International Students in Canada are Indians- about 226,000 in 2022
6. Civil nuclear cooperation
7. There is also the worry of impact on ties with Canadian allies in NATO, G7 and the Five Eyes. US President Biden has been invited for Rday and Quad Summit likely to happen in January 2024
8. Impact of ties with other countries that have Khalistan supporters- US, UK, Australia etc
What many forget is that the history of India-Canada ties has been marked by tensions over the Khalistan issue for more than four decades:
1. In the 1970s, India-Canada ties went sour over India’s test of a nuclear weapon- until then Canada had been a key supplier of civil nuclear technology. Towards the end of the decade, India began to note a steady influx of Khalistan separatists including self styled Khalistan President Jagjit Singh Chohan to western countries including Canada, UK and US
2. In 1982, India asked Canada for the extradition of Talvinder Singh Parmar, wanted for terror acts. Despite an extradition pact under the Commonwealth, Canada refused. Trudeau’s father Pierre Trudeau was then PM.
3. In 1984, Indian PM Indira Gandhi ordered Operation Bluestar against militants inside the Golden Temple, set off a storm amongst the Sikh community- months later she was assassinated by her bodyguards, and anti-Sikh riots followed- Parmar led threats against India
4. In June 1985, an Air India flight 182 from Toronto and Montreal bound for Bombay blew up over the Irish coast killing 329 on board, The same day, 2 baggage handlers died at Tokyo’s Narita airport, as a bomb inside luggage being transferred to another Air India flight exploded- for years, India accused Canadian prosecutors of dragging their feet over investigations and prosecution of those responsible- Eventually in 2005, after a long court case, where witnesses had been killed, recanted, the judge pronounced Parmar the mastermind, convicted another, but acquitted 2 men against whom evidence was considered substantial. While Parmar was killed in India in 1992, one of those acquitted Ripudaman Singh Mallik was shot dead in 2022 in Canada, much like Nijjar was
5. All this time, since 1973, no Indian PM visited Canada. In June 2010, PM Manmohan Singh visited for the G20 in Toronto- five days before his visit, Canadian PM Harper did something India had asked for years- gave a full apology to the families of those who died, expressing regret over the government’s failure. During his visit, PM Singh and PM Harper announced the civil nuclear deal, marking a détente in ties
6. In 2015, PM Modi became the first Indian PM to make a bilateral visit to Canada after 42 years. His visit saw the easing of visas, trade and investment between the two countries.
7. But ties continued to flag, especially after PM Trudeau was elected a few months later. Trudeau’s visit to India in 2018 was dogged by controversies, including the appearance of a Khalistani activist at his dinner, and in 2019 India froze ties after Trudeau criticized PM Modi’s handling of the Farmers protests.
8. In 2022 PM Modi and PM Trudeau met again, resetting ties, and the two governments then began talks on a Free Trade agreement, with Canadian FM Melanie Joly making 2 visits this year in February and March
9. However, since June, the killing of Nijjar, as well as a Canadian inquiry into possible political interference in Canada by India, China, Iran and Russia sent ties spiralling. By the time Trudeau met Modi for an acrimonious bilateral on September 10 in Delhi after the G20, the die seemed cast.
It is clear from the history and decades of tensions between India and Canada, that the issue of Khalistani separatist violence cannot be brushed away, and it is equally clear that a further rift in ties will affect millions of ordinary Indians, Canadians and Indo-Canadians. The need of the hour is a high level intervention, and a mechanism put in place to deal with the very serious allegations levelled by Canada on sovereignty and political interference, and also by India on safe havens for terrorism and diplomatic interference. Playing on an international pitch for domestic politics gains must be avoided at all costs.
WV Reading Recommendation
Does The Elephant Dance? By David Malone
Books on Khalistan, the creation and the Canada link:
Loss Of Faith: How The Air India Bombers Got Away With Murder by Kim Bolan
Margin of Terror: A Reporter’s Twenty-Year Odyssey Covering the Tragedies of the Air India Bombing by Salim Jiwa and Donald J. Hauka
The Khalistan Conspiracy: A Former R&AW Officer Unravels the Path to 1984 by G.B.S. Sidhu
Amritsar: Mrs Gandhi’s Last Battle by Mark Tully and Satish Jacob
Blood for Blood: Fifty Years of the Global Khalistan Project by Terry Milewski
Cold Terror: How Canada Nurtures and Exports Terrorism Around the World by Stewart Bell
Script and Presentation: Suhasini Haidar
Production: Gayatri Menon and Reenu Cyriac