HomeIndiaHow India-Canada ties became a public dispute - BBC News

How India-Canada ties became a public dispute – BBC News

  • By Sharanya Hrishikesh and Vikas Pandey
  • BBC News, Delhi

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Trudeau (left) and Modi had a tense meeting in Delhi recently.

The growing dispute over the assassination of a Sikh separatist leader has the potential to derail years of close relations between Canada and India, two key strategic partners on security and trade.

The breach came to light on Monday when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau saying Canada was investigating “credible allegations” about the possible involvement of Indian government agents in the murder of Hardeep Singh Nijjar in British Columbia in June.

India responded furiously, “completely rejecting” the allegations, calling them “absurd.” The two expelled one of the other’s diplomats and it is unclear how they managed to climb out of the abyss.

Just a few months ago, countries were moving toward signing a long-in-the-making free trade agreement this year. Now, talks are on pause and an imminent Canadian trade mission to India is postponed.

So how did things get to this point?

The recent G20 summit in Delhi offered some clues, including Trudeau’s tense (and brief) meeting with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Then he suffered the shame of having to wait in Delhi for two more days before being able to leave after his plane suffered a technical fault.

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Security personnel outside the Canadian High Commission in Delhi on Tuesday

After the two leaders met there was no mincing words. Trudeau said Canada will always defend “freedom of expression” while acting against hate.

In an unusually sharp way statementThe Indian government said it had “grave concern over the continued anti-India activities of extremist elements in Canada”, whom it accused of “promoting secessionism and inciting violence against Indian diplomats”.

The reference is to calls by Sikh activists in Canada for Khalistan, or a separate homeland for Sikhs. It is a demand that evokes painful memories for millions of people in India, especially in the northern state of Punjab, where Sikhs make up the majority of the population (outside of Punjab, Canada has the largest number of Sikhs in the world).

The demand for Khalistan peaked in India in the 1980s, when an armed insurgency was subsequently crushed and thousands of people were killed. The movement is not prominent now in Punjab, and all major Indian political parties openly oppose it.

But calls for Khalistan remain strong among some members of the Sikh diaspora in countries such as Canada, Australia and the United Kingdom. Delhi has reacted sharply to pro-Khalistan protests and referendums by Sikh activists in these countries; It is not illegal there, but it is a big irritant for India.

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In July, Khalistan supporters held a demonstration outside the Indian consulate in Toronto.

The issue received increased global attention after three pro-Khalistan activists were killed in quick succession in different countries earlier this year.

Paramjit Singh Panjwar, head of the Khalistan Commando Force, designated a terrorist by India, was shot dead in May in Pakistan; His murderers have not yet been identified.

In the United Kingdom, Avtar Singh Khanda, reportedly head of the Khalistan Liberation Forces, died on June 15 in hospital. Khanda had been arrested in March after a demonstration in London where protesters tore down the Indian flag at the country’s embassy. But a UK police spokesman saying The death was “not considered suspicious.”

Three days after his death, Nijjar, also designated a terrorist by India, was shot dead outside a Sikh temple in British Columbia; It is this murder that has now led Canada to take a firm public stance against a powerful ally.

Relations between the two have survived previous tensions: Canada reacted sharply to Indian nuclear tests in 1974 and 1998; India expressed disappointment in 2005 after two Canadian Sikhs accused of a deadly Air India attack were paid.

But otherwise, the two nations have generally been on good terms, except for the Khalistan issue. They have much in common: “a shared tradition of democracy and pluralism” and “a common commitment to a rules-based international system,” as Canada itself states. puts.

Both are Commonwealth countries and members of the G20 group of major world economies. Canada, which wants to have a greater presence in Asia, sees India as a counterweight to China.

It’s not just geopolitics, the countries also have strong commercial ties.

India was Canada’s 10th largest trading partner in 2022, with bilateral trade in goods of $11.9 billion that year, up 56% from the previous year. They were very close to signing that trade agreement that is now on the back burner.

So there is obviously a lot at stake for both countries.

“I think this is a lesson to all of us that there is nothing sacrosanct about India’s close relations with its Western partners. This is a wake-up call that yes, India is a non-aligned actor, it values ​​its relations with the world”. “The South definitely values ​​its relations with the West. But that doesn’t mean it’s going to be insulated from the possibility of a major crisis in relations,” says Michael Kugelman, director of the South Asia Institute at the Wilson Center. tank in Washington.

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Modi shakes hands with Trudeau’s youngest son in 2018

Indian Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar said earlier this year that Canada’s response to Khalistan has been driven by “vote bank compulsion,” referring to the support Trudeau’s Liberal Party receives. of the Sikhs. Trudeau’s minority government also has the backing of the New Democratic Party (NDP), led by Jagmeet Singh, himself a Sikh.

It’s an assessment that many Indian experts agree with.

Chintamani Mahapatra, founder of the Kalinga Institute for Indo-Pacific Studies, says Trudeau’s statements on the Khalistan issue are “divisive.”

“It ignores the feelings of the broader Indo-Canadian community, which includes Canadian Sikhs, and seems biased in favor of the Khalistanis. Would you like outside support for the Quebec separatists? Of course not,” he says, adding that the Relations between India and Canada have become more stressful because of Trudeau.

“In the name of democracy, human rights and freedom of expression, Canada should not jeopardize its relations with other countries.”

But Avinash Paliwal, who teaches politics and international studies at SOAS University of London, says the sudden escalation may not just be due to internal compulsions.

“If their intelligence agencies have collected credible information that another country, even if it is an ally, was involved in a covert operation on their territory, they are obligated to act accordingly,” he says, adding that Trudeau is likely to first try to raise the problem through other channels.

According to India statementTrudeau leveled the accusation at Modi, but it received little attention.

The Canadian prime minister has received support from other national politicians, including main opposition leader Pierre Poilievre. The West has also reacted, with the United States saying it is “deeply concerned” by the allegations, while the United Kingdom says it is “in close contact” with Canada on the issue.

Experts say that while Western countries see India as necessary to counter China’s influence, there is also growing concern about the direction of Indian policy under the Modi government; Critics say attacks on minorities have increased since his government came to power and raise other human rights concerns. .

Developments will also be closely watched by Beijing and Moscow, which will be happy to see a “rift between India and the West”, says Paliwal. However, he adds that this will not “derail the strategic story” or “make Washington turn its back” on India.

Kugelman says China and Russia will view the confrontation differently.

“Beijing does not want India to expand and deepen its relations with like-minded countries eager to counterattack China. So in that sense, this can be seen as a strategic benefit for Beijing. Russia may be perfectly happy to see Canada stuck in this crisis,” he says.

However, in the short term, a confrontation between India and Canada will have geopolitical consequences. If Canada continues to issue strong statements and directly accuse India, it will pose a unique challenge to Western governments, especially the United Kingdom and Australia.

The way the West Backed Delhi at the recent G20 summit was a clear indication that he wants India to be a viable counterweight to China.

But it will be a strategic headache for them if the time comes when they have to choose between India and Canada. So far, the United Kingdom, the United States and Australia have made calculated statements.

But can India and Canada still patch up their differences to avoid a geopolitical challenge to the West?

Mahapatra says that while the Khalistan issue may affect economic cooperation in the short term, it is unlikely to derail long-term ties between the countries. He also warns against “extreme measures,” especially by Canada.

“Expelling a diplomat means you don’t want dialogue. These issues must be addressed through dialogue and diplomacy, not through confrontation,” he says.

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