What might Australia learn from the Nijjar affair and the breakdown in Canada–India relations?
25 Sep 2023|

Justin Trudeau’s announcement that Canadian authorities suspect India had some role in the killing of Sikh separatist leader Hardeep Singh Nijjar outside a temple in Surrey, British Columbia on 18 June was dramatic, but hardly unexpected. The Canadian media began speculating about India’s possible involvement soon after Nijjar’s murder, prompted by leaks from the intelligence services. Other media outlets quickly connected the case to the untimely deaths of two other Sikh activists. Avtar Singh Khanda led a violent protest outside the Indian High Commission in London in March and died a few days before Nijjar, and Paramjit Singh Panjwar was shot by unidentified gunmen in Lahore, Pakistan, in May.

New Delhi has rejected Trudeau’s claims, but this issue is not going to go away. Nor is it likely to remain within the bounds of the Canada-India relationship. Given the patchy and contested information we have at this point, what might Australia learn from the Nijjar affair and how should Canberra respond?

The first thing to note is that Khalistani activism overseas—not just in Canada, but also in the United Kingdom, United States and Australia—is a major concern for New Delhi, not a marginal one, as some governments might think. The drivers of this concern are mixed. Senior figures in the Indian government, not least national security advisor Ajit Doval, experienced the brutal Khalistani-driven Punjab insurgency of the 1980s and 90s first hand. They would likely favour a hard-line approach. So too might more cynical elements of Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party who might seek to frame Khalistani activism as a threat, as they have in recent years, and consolidate political support with a tough response.

The second lesson is that whatever has occurred in this particular case, India has long since shed its earlier adherence to ‘strategic restraint’. Even if New Delhi played no role in Nijjar’s killing, as it insists, it is nevertheless clear that India is willing to use force and take risks to defend its interests. The special forces raid into Pakistani-administered Kashmir in 2016 and an airstrike on alleged terrorist camps in Pakistan-proper in 2019 were clear demonstrations of this new approach. So too were the premeditated encounter with Chinese soldiers in the Galwan Valley in mid-2020 and the rapid deployment of tens of thousands of troops into the Himalayas in the weeks that followed.

The third issue is that this muscularity is popular within India and segments of the Indian diaspora overseas. In the 2019 election campaign, Modi portrayed himself as a humble but vigilant chowkidar (‘watchman’) for a reason: it resonated with voters who want to see India standing up for itself in the world and accorded the respect the country deserved. For that reason, New Delhi’s indignant response to Canada’s accusations concerning Nijjar’s killing has bipartisan support, and strong defenders in leading media outlets.

The fourth takeaway is that states like Australia must pay closer attention to the politics of the Indian diaspora because New Delhi certainly does. Rightly, Canberra has long emphasised that the diaspora can and does play a crucial role in developing economic ties with India and improving cultural understanding, as well as making a substantial and valued contribution to Australian society. But it must also be recognised that the Indian diaspora is highly political. It is as deeply engaged in the politics of India as in the politics of the countries in which the diaspora has settled.

In Australia alone, both left-wing and right-wing activism flourishes in the Indian-origin community and Khalistani separatism has lately become popular among some Sikhs. For these reasons, India is more interested in monitoring and sometime intervening in diaspora politics than other countries, and this demands careful management.

Australia’s response to the Nijjar affair must take account of all four points—and focus on our interests, not on airy talk about supposed shared values. If it has not done so already, Canberra must clearly convey to New Delhi that while it must uphold freedom of speech and association within Australia, it takes India’s concerns about militancy within the Khalistani movement seriously.

At the same time, Canberra must send the message that while Australia views a stronger, more capable, and less restrained India as a net positive for regional stability, it does not see an India that intimidates overseas activists or engages in extra-judicial executions in the same way. This must be done firmly but with tact, recognising that many Indians want to see their government deal robustly with people they see as dangerous terrorists harboured by a complacent or complicit West, and acknowledging that the West’s recent record in counterterrorism is, at best, patchy and morally compromised.

Canberra cannot neglect the diaspora. Australia’s sizable and growing Indian-origin community must be reassured in clear terms that the rights and freedoms of all Australian citizens and residents will be upheld. In parallel, diaspora activists across the political spectrum should be engaged to ensure both the proper boundaries of political action and our foreign interference regime are understood, even when disagreement is keen and debate fraught, as it so often is.

India is too important in itself and in terms of the role it plays in the wider region to allow Australia’s relations with New Delhi to deteriorate to where Canada’s ties now lie. Our security and prosperity are bound up with India’s success. But our partnership can only progress if there’s mutual respect of each other, our respective interests, and agreed rules and norms. This should be our focus as this affair plays out.