Worldview with Suhasini Haidar | Khalistani separatists issue: Its impact on India’s ties with West

Watch | Khalistani separatists issue: Its impact on India’s ties with West

In this episode of Worldview, we discuss  US concerns over targeting a Khalistani separatist and how New Delhi will deal with it

November 24, 2023 06:47 pm | Updated 09:23 pm IST

After Canada’s allegations over Nijjar, the US raises new concerns over targeting a Khalistani separatist on its soil- how will New Delhi walk the tightrope between its own national security concerns and its growing strategic partnership with western countries? 

Hello and Welcome to WorldView at The Hindu with me Suhasini Haidar. I’m in Melbourne, Australia at present, attending the Australia India Leadership Dialogue. 

India worked to boost its ties with its western partners this month- US, UK and Australia, and the one common thread has been the Khalistan issue- the presence and threats from Khalistani separatists, and now new allegations against India 

First- the big stories that we saw: 

  1. A video issued by banned Sikh separatist leader Gurpatwant Singh Pannu- in a video, he threatened Air India flights starting November 19, saying no Sikhs should travel on them- particularly menacing as it harks back to 1985 and the AI 182 Kanishka bombing that killed 329- no action against him yet by US or Canada 
  2. India resumed e-visa services for Canada that had been suspended 2 months ago- while the move will help restart travel, it isn’t quite a thaw, as India and Canada traded charges over the killing of Khalistan separatist Hardeep Singh Nijjar in June this year- (WV Episode 124 ). But Canadian PM Trudeau repeated his allegations 
  3. And then, new allegations, this time involving the US- an article by the Financial Times that said that the US had taken up a plot to assassinate Pannu, and “warned” India over its possible involvement during PM Modi’s visit to Washington in June this year. There was also this article The Intercept- that was based on Pakistani intelligence documents about the killings of Khalistan and Kashmir terror leaders in Pakistan, allegedly by Indian intelligence. Most surprisingly, the FT article was corroborated by the White House spokesperson, who said that the issue was of great concern, and that Indian officials had been surprised by the allegations. The MEA also issued a rare statement, quite a contrast from its reaction to Canadian allegations 

The issues over Khalistan- India’s concerns over the presence of spearatists in various Western countries, and those countries concerns about possible Indian agency covert extra-judicial action were on the agenda for many other meetings. 

Congratulations on the World Cup Win…do you regret you weren’t there? 

I have to say this was a little unexpected. I think we were prepping ourselves for India who has been so dominant in the tournament, to win, but as a South Australian, I’m really happy because Travis Head is from my hometown. I couldn’t get here for the match. But the Deputy Prime Minister attended and he said it was extraordinary.  

Trade talks between Canada and India were suspended because of the [Nijjar killing controversy]. Do you think Australia’s stance on that entire episode, as well as on the expulsion of Canadian diplomats from India, has impacted India- Australia ties as well and could that be one of the reasons [for trade talks slowing down]? 

We have a relationship in which there is a great deal of strategic trust and a great deal of ability to express our views on those issues. Australia has a clear, principled view about the sovereignty of both countries. And the respect for the rule of law. And we have made our views known to our Indian friends consistent with those principles. 

You also made your views known publicly, with statements on the India-Canada issue. Do you think India is in violation of the Vienna Convention?  

I’m not going to get into a judgment about whether international law or principle has or has not been abrogated, but I will say: this we have an in principle view about the importance of the rule of law and about sovereignty. And we have engaged with our Indian counterparts in accordance with those principles. 

Like Canada, Australia too, has a large Indian diaspora, a divided diaspora. Prime Minister Modi on two occasions publicly has spoken about the need to protect Indian origin minorities in Australia, do you worry that India Australia ties could be could be impacted the way Canada and your ties have been over this idea? 

We have a large Indian diaspora which is our second largest. I think it’s our fastest growing and part of what drives our relationship is our people. What also matters to us is our multicultural character. We are a country where one in two Australians are either born overseas or have has a parent born overseas, and I’m one of them. We also safeguard our democracy so we believe people have the right to disagree. People have the right to protest peacefully, and people have the right to freedom of expression. What we have made clear on these sorts of issues is that we do not accept vandalism or violence. Those are contrary to our law and to our principles.  

But has Australia been able to take steps that India had asked against groups particularly Khalistan separatist extremist groups there? 

In relation to that I’d say is we respect your sovereignty. And we also are very clear about the line between peaceful protests, freedom of expression and violence and vandalism. 

Do you think India overreacted then?

No. We understand it is a sensitive issue for India. I think it is a sensitive issue. We have had a good dialogue about this. I think we are in a place where we both understand the way we approach this.

Australian FM Penny Wong there- Clearly, the concerns for Indian diplomacy are multi-fold 

  1. Despite evidence of terror attacks by Khalistani separatists over more than 4 decades, India’s western partners don’t appear to accept India’s concerns, which have resurfaced in the past few years 
  2. No action has been taken by the US or Canada to stop the open threats, although they all have provided more security to Indian missions in US UK Canada and Australia 
  3. Indian agencies are now being suspected for carrying out extra-judicial operations and killings abroad, but particularly in these western countries, which see themselves as friendly states- while these may be intelligence operatives, it is the MEA that will need to explain their actions 
  4. There’s no question that US Canada, UK, Australia have a double standard when it comes to international rule of law, take the case of their support for Israel’s bombing of Gaza for example compared to these cases where those on target are wanted for instigating violent acts 
  5. Even so, India will have to continue to engage with these countries and make a more forceful case against Khalistani extremists operating from their soil. The government also needs to explain its own double standards- where it rejected Canadian allegations out of hand, vs their accommodation and understanding of similar US allegations. 
  6. The government may also wish to rethink its shift in decades old policy, where people to people ties were allowed to prosper, but high level political engagement with countries like Canada were frozen until they act against those threatening the security of India and Indians. 

WV Take: After trying a very tough diplomatic pushback to Canada, India appears willing to negotiate and work with the US on allegations that operatives in India, including possibly government agents are behind the targeting of Khalistani extremists abroad. From batting on the front foot for decades, claiming the high moral ground – recent events appear to have pushed the government onto the backfoot to defend its policy. Meanwhile a different kind of diplomacy, reconciling differences between different sections of the diaspora without regard to their religion is also required. 

That’s all we have time for on WV- do join us again, subscribe at www.thehindu.com and like and subscribe our YouTube channel. From the team, thanks for watching 

Script and Presentation: Suhasini Haidar

Production: Gayatri Menon and K. Rajashree Das

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