Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s public, yet unfounded, allegations that the Indian government may have played a role in the assassination of a Sikh separatist on Canadian soil, has created a rift between the two countries. His motives need to be analysed.
The growing spat over the killing of Hardeep Singh Nijjar, who was a vocal supporter of the creation of Khalistan – a separate homeland for the Sikhs that would include parts of India’s Punjab state, saw Canada take the first step in expelling a senior Indian diplomat, with India reacting by expelling a senior Canadian diplomat.
On September 18, Trudeau told parliament that “Canadian security agencies have been pursuing credible allegations of a potential link between agents of the Government of India and the killing of a Canadian citizen, Nijjar”.
This is unprecedented as it is the first time a leader of a G7 nation has publicly accused another of an extrajudicial assassination on their soil.
The allegations had geopolitical implications and the potential of undoing India’s enhanced global stature and reputation.
The Canadian media have placed Trudeau’s ambiguous language in his accusations under a magnifying glass, highlighting the absence of substantial evidence as Canada relied on intelligence allegations rather than intelligence evidence.
India’s Minister of External Affairs, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, said the differences preceded Nijjar’s death as the Indian government had long accused Canada of inaction in dealing with Sikh separatist extremism aimed at creating a separate Sikh homeland.
“The Canadian (prime minister) made some allegations, initially privately and then publicly. And, our response to him, both in private and public, was that what he was alleging was not consistent with our policy,” Jaishankar said.
He said it was “politically convenient” to make the accusations public without proof being presented that India was complicit in an extrajudicial assassination.
Speaking at the UN General Assembly, Jaishankar said: “Rulemakers do not subjugate rule takers, after all rules will only work when they are applied equally to all.
“Nor must we countenance that political convenience determines responses to terrorism, extremism and violence.”
India went further and accused Canada of being a “haven for terrorists, extremists and organised crime”.
Who was Hardeep Singh Nijjar?
Nijjar acquired Canadian citizenship in 2001. In 2009, police in India said he became an active Khalistan extremist and emerged as the leader of the Khalistan Tiger Force (KTF), a terrorist organisation that is banned in India.
Since 2008, Indian intelligence agencies accused Nijjar of aiding several targeted killings in Punjab, using Khalistani militants to smuggle arms into India and running extortion rackets with other Punjab organised crime elements.
The Indian government requested the Canadian government to extradite Nijjar in 2022, to no avail. He was among the two dozen Canadian extremists that Indian intelligence agencies had warned Canada about but it required enormous amounts of evidentiary proof to act on this information.
The disconnect between India and the West on the issue of Sikh separatism
In India's view, these anti-India elements are embodied by Nijjar, a supporter of the Khalistan movement that seeks a separate Sikh homeland in India's Punjab state. Indian officials accuse Nijjar of heading the KTF, a banned violent group. India formally categorised him as a terrorist in 2020 and recently leaked Indian intelligence reports claim Nijjar funded terrorism in India and organised armed training camps in Canada.
The West and India's positions on terrorism, especially Islamist militancy, including Lashkar-e-Taiba, al-Qaeda and the Islamic State generally converge but it is a different story with Sikh extremism.
India’s warnings about the dangers of Sikh separatism have largely been ignored by Western governments as the Khalistan movement, unlike Islamist terrorism, rarely poses a direct threat to the West. Khalistan violence mainly targets India, though supporters of the movement have made threats against Indian diplomats in the West.
India and Canada were also embroiled in a diplomatic row in the early 1980s, when then Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau (Justin Trudeau’s father) turned down requests by then Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi to extradite Khalistani extremist Talwinder Singh Parmar who was living in Canada.
In 1985, Parmar was the mastermind of the mid-air bombing of an Air India jet that took off from Montreal, killing 329 passengers and crew, most of them Canadians.
What prompted Trudeau’s public allegations?
In 2021’s Parliamentary elections, Trudeau’s Liberal Party won 160 seats, short of the 170 needed for a majority, and he needed the help of other parties to form a coalition government. One of the parties was the New Democratic Party (NDP) which is headed by Jagmeet Singh Dhaliwal who is said to be a Khalistan sympathiser. It formed a coalition with the NDP’s 25 seats and allowed Trudeau to form a government and return as prime minister for a third term.
Trudeau’s popularity, according to Canadian opinion polls, is at its lowest levels due to economic reasons. There are suggestions that the allegations against India are meant to divert attention from the country’s economic woes, including the high cost of living.
There are also suggestions that Trudeau does not want the NDP to pull out of his government and affect the majority coalition that he has put together.
Trudeau’s allegations that the Government of India and its agencies are guilty even before any credible evidence has been publicly or privately presented may prove that despite shifts in economic power to the Global South, global narratives about international issues remain heavily skewed in favour of Western governments.
Dr Govender is an academic and a keen observer of issues related to international relations.