The roots of the India–Canada stoush
6 Oct 2023|

Rarely have two major democracies descended into as ugly a diplomatic spat as the one now unfolding between Canada and India. With the traditionally friendly relationship already at its lowest point ever, both sides are now engaging in quiet diplomacy to arrest the downward spiral, using the United States, a Canadian ally and Indian partner, as the intermediary. But even if the current diplomatic ruckus eases, Canada’s tolerance of Sikh separatist activity on its territory will continue to bedevil bilateral ties.

The latest dispute began when Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau sensationally claimed that there were ‘credible allegations’ about a ‘potential link’ between India’s government and the fatal shooting in June of Hardeep Singh Nijjar, a Sikh separatist and Canadian citizen, on Canadian soil. India’s government fired back by demanding that Canada reduce its diplomatic staff in India, suspending new visas for Canadians, and accusing Canada of making ‘absurd’ accusations to divert attention from its status as ‘a safe haven for terrorists’.

Nijjar was hardly the only Sikh separatist living in Canada. In fact, the country has emerged as the global hub of the militant movement for ‘Khalistan’, or an independent Sikh homeland. The separatists constitute a small minority of the Sikh diaspora, concentrated in the Anglosphere, especially Canada. Sikhs living in India—who overwhelmingly report that they are proud to be Indian—do not support the separatist cause.

With British Columbia as their operational base, the separatists are waging a strident campaign glorifying political violence. For example, they have erected billboards advocating the killing of Indian diplomats (with photos), honoured jailed or killed terrorists as ‘martyrs’, built a parade float on which the assassination of Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was re-enacted, and staged attacks on Indian diplomatic missions in Canada. They have also held referendums on independence for Khalistan in Canada.

But, much to India’s frustration, Canada has been reluctant to take strong action to rein in Sikh separatism. Trudeau’s first official visit to India in 2018 turned into a disaster after it was revealed that a convicted Sikh terrorist who had spent years in a Canadian prison following the attempted assassination of a visiting Indian state cabinet minister had made it onto the Canadian guest list. At last month’s G20 summit in New Delhi, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi gave Trudeau a dressing-down for being soft on violent extremists.

It was against this tense backdrop that Trudeau made his allegations about Nijjar’s murder. When countries have linked foreign agents to a domestic death—for example, in 2010, when the Dubai police chief accused Mossad, Israel’s intelligence service, of killing a Hamas commander in a local luxury hotel—they have typically presented video, audio or forensic evidence. And they have mostly avoided blaming the government that the foreign agents represent.

Trudeau, by contrast, cast blame directly on the Indian government without presenting a scintilla of evidence. He says the allegations are based on credible intelligence, apparently from a Five Eyes partner country (Australia, New Zealand, the UK or the US), but refuses to declassify the information or share it with Indian authorities.

Trudeau apparently hasn’t provided ‘any facts’ even to Canadian opposition leader Pierre Poilievre, a member of the Privy Council. And, according to the premier of British Columbia, the province where the killing occurred, the intelligence briefing he received on the matter included only information ‘available to the public doing an internet search’.

Meanwhile, Canadian investigators haven’t made a single arrest in the case. This has left many wondering to what extent Canada’s powerful but unaccountable intelligence establishment controls the country’s foreign policy.

In any case, there’s no doubt that Sikh radicals wield real political influence in Canada, including as funders. Trudeau keeps his minority government afloat with the help of Jagmeet Singh, the New Democratic Party’s Sikh leader and a Khalistan sympathiser. According to a former foreign policy adviser to Trudeau’s government, action was not taken to choke off financing for the Khalistani militants because ‘Trudeau did not want to lose the Sikh vote’ to Singh.

Canada must wake up to the threat posed by its Sikh militants. Rising drug-trade profitability and easy gun availability in British Columbia have contributed to internecine infighting among Khalistan radicals in the province. The volatile combination of Sikh militancy, the drug trade and gangland killings has serious implications for Canadian security, but it is not only Canadians who are in danger.

Under the premiership of Trudeau’s father, Pierre Trudeau, Canada’s reluctance to rein in or extradite Sikh extremists wanted in India for terrorism led to the 1985 twin bombings targeting Air India flights. One attack killed all 329 passengers, most of whom were of Indian origin, on a flight from Toronto; the other misfired, killing two baggage handlers at Tokyo’s Narita Airport. With Khalistani militants continuing to idolise Talwinder Singh Parmar—the terrorist that two separate Canadian inquiries identified as the mastermind behind the bombings—history is in danger of repeating itself.

By reopening old wounds, not least those created by the Air India attacks, Trudeau’s accusations have created a rare national consensus in fractious and highly polarised India. Many are calling for New Delhi to put sustained pressure on Ottawa to start cleaning up its act. But more bitterness and recriminations won’t restore the bilateral relationship. For that, both sides must use effective, cooperative diplomacy to address each other’s concerns.