Musings on the frictions in India-Canada ties

Indian diplomats have the obligation to highlight the damage to bilateral ties when Canadian politicians support separatism in India

Updated - June 14, 2023 12:52 pm IST

Published - June 14, 2023 12:08 am IST

‘The ethnic Indian community, including the Sikhs, plays an important role in Canada’s public life’

‘The ethnic Indian community, including the Sikhs, plays an important role in Canada’s public life’ | Photo Credit: AP

During a pro-Khalistani parade on June 4 in Brampton, Canada, there was a tableau that depicted a lady clad in a white sari, who was bloodied, with two soldiers training their guns on her. The board behind her read, “Revenge of attack on Shri Darbar Sahib”. The side of the float carried the words, “Never forget 1984”. Clearly, the tableau figures depicted were that of India’s former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and her assassins.

The Indian response

In a media conference on June 8, to commemorate nine years of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s administration, the External Affairs Minister, S. Jaishankar, was asked about the Brampton tableau. He chose not to refer directly to the offensive float though he indirectly indicated that it was “egregious”. Instead, he focused, as he put it, on the “bigger” issue — the space Canada gives “to separatists, to extremists, to people who advocate violence.” He added, “... and I think it’s not good for the relationship and I think it’s not good for Canada.” Mr. Jaishankar did well to speak out, openly and forcefully, on Canada’s hypocritical approaches on human rights issues and its decades long disdain for the territorial integrity of India.

This stated, it is remarkable that Mr. Jaishankar could not get himself around to take the name of Indira Gandhi. The glorification of “revenge” by anyone for the assassination of an Indian Prime Minister is an issue beyond party politics or personal pique for it concerns the dignity of the nation. This is so even if a Prime Minister took actions, like Indira Gandhi did in June 1984, that were controversial and the Congress party’s role in the anti-Sikh 1984 riots was condemnable. Ironically, while Mr. Jaishankar did not name Indira Gandhi, the Canadian High Commissioner to India Cameron Mackay did. He tweeted, “I am appalled by reports of an event in Canada that celebrated the assassination of late Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.” Indeed, the country’s positions would be better and more credibly articulated if the able, popular and powerful politician that Mr. Jaishankar has become does not completely obscure his former avatar of a distinguished diplomat.

Diaspora and foreign policy

The ethnic Indian community, including the Sikhs, plays an important role in Canada’s public life. There are currently some ethnic Indians in Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s cabinet. At the press conference, Mr. Jaishankar mentioned Canada’s indulgence of Khalistani elements (he did not use the word, but that is clearly what he had in mind) and aptly attributed it to ‘vote bank’ politics. It is the ethnic Indian, and, in this case, not restricted to a Khalistani-‘vote bank’ that had led Mr. Trudeau to comment on the farmers’ agitation which was a purely domestic Indian issue. India naturally found Mr. Trudeau’s remarks unacceptable.

Mr. Jaishankar’s comments on Canadian attitudes to ethnic Indians provide an occasion to consider the Indian political class’s approaches towards the diaspora which has gained political, financial and professional success in many countries. It has become a pillar of foreign policy, especially of the present dispensation which has also used Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s popularity with a vast section of the diaspora to impress domestic public opinion. Also, whereever the diaspora is politically important, local politicians want to use Mr. Modi’s popularity for their political purposes. The latest illustration of this phenomena was Mr. Modi’s diaspora rally during his recent visit to Australia which was attended by Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese.

Following Mr. Modi’s example, other Indian political players will also now play diaspora politics. The Congress’s Rahul Gandhi’s recent visit to the United States is a case in point. Thus, the tradition that Indian domestic politics will not be taken beyond the shores of India no longer holds.

Another significant issue which Mr. Jaishankar addressed during the media briefing related to the remarks of Jody Thomas, Canada’s National Security and Intelligence Adviser. Speaking at a conference organised by the Canada Global Affairs Institute on June 2, Ms. Thomas said, “When I talk about foreign interference and economic security, I’m now talking of a number of state actors and non-state proxies. This includes Russia, Iran, India.” That said, the actor that comes up most on these issues, and it is no surprise to anybody, is China. In response Mr. Jaishankar used the Hindi language phrase, “Ulta Chor Kotwal ko daten (The thief scolds the police)”. He rightly dismissed Ms. Thomas’ comment outright. India cannot be accused of seeking to influence Canadian domestic affairs if its diplomats openly interact with the Indian diaspora there. Indian diplomats have the obligation to point to the diaspora and others the harmful impact on bilateral ties when Canadian politicians support separatism in India. These diplomatic activities cannot be construed as interference in Canada’s internal affairs.

Canadian politics

The harsh reality of the current Canadian political situation is that Mr. Trudeau is critically dependent on the New Democratic Party (NDP) for his government’s survival and Jagmeet Singh, the NDP leader, is a committed Khalistan sympathiser. He had asked Mr. Trudeau to intervene in the events in Punjab surrounding radical preacher Amritpal Singh’s activities. Coming from a Canadian government ally, this was naturally unacceptable to India.

Bilateral ties are passing through difficult times but cooperation in many areas continues. One eye-catching one is the Cannabis medicine project.

Vivek Katju is a retired Indian Foreign Service officer

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