On the evening of June 18th Hardeep Singh Nijjar, a Canadian Sikh leader whom India considered a terrorist, was sitting in his truck in a car park outside a gurdwara (a Sikh temple) in Vancouver when two masked men shot him dead. They escaped through a park and disappeared.
On September 18th Justin Trudeau, Canada’s prime minister, told lawmakers in Ottawa that “credible intelligence” from the country’s security services linked India to the killing. It is a highly unusual accusation for the leader of one democracy to make against the government of another.
Mr Trudeau said that he had discussed the allegation with Narendra Modi, India’s prime minister, on the sidelines of a g20 meeting in Delhi on September 10th, and that he would push India to co-operate with an investigation. “Any involvement of a foreign government in the killing of a Canadian citizen on Canadian soil is an unacceptable violation of our sovereignty,” he told Parliament.
The accusation marks a new low in the already frosty relationship between the two countries. Shortly after Mr Trudeau’s remarks, Canada’s foreign minister announced the expulsion of the head of India’s intelligence agency in Canada.
But India’s foreign ministry categorically denied the allegation, calling it “absurd” and politically motivated, and declared the reciprocal expulsion of a Canadian diplomat. It accused Canada of sheltering “Khalistani terrorists and separatists”, a reference to those who seek an independent homeland for Sikhs in the state of Punjab and other parts of northern India.
In India, right-wing media and supporters of Mr Modi echoed the government’s line, accusing Mr Trudeau of pandering to terrorists.
Yet they also suggested that the row may help the prime minister. “Justin Trudeau starts campaigning for Modi ahead of the 2024 General Elections by blaming his govt of neutralising a terrorist on Canadian soil,” Nupur J Sharma, the editor of OpIndia, a right-wing website, wrote on X (formerly Twitter).
The deterioration in the India-Canada relationship had been apparent for some time. On September 1st Canada said it had paused trade talks with India. In the days leading up to the g20 Canada, while sticking to its allegation, had apparently attempted to reduce tensions by quietly sending the head of its intelligence service and Mr Trudeau’s national security adviser to India. If so, it did not help.
At the g20, where other Western leaders held long meetings with Mr Modi, Mr Trudeau was fobbed off with a ten-minute huddle on the sidelines. A smiling Mr Modi draped a silk scarf around his neck in what now appears to have been an ironic welcome. (A previous trip by Mr Trudeau to India in 2018 turned into a fiasco after a convicted Sikh extremist was invited to an official reception for him, although the invitation was later withdrawn).
Sikh separatism, the cause behind a bloody insurgency in India in the 1970s and 1980s, has long been a sore point between India and Canada, which is home to a large Sikh diaspora.
India accuses Canada of being soft on militant separatists. Canadian former security officials say that India’s government has conducted surveillance on Khalistani groups in Canada for years. Canada itself became the victim of Khalistani terrorism in 1985, when a bomb blew up an Air India aeroplane flying from Montreal to London, killing 329 people, mostly Canadians. It remains the deadliest terrorist attack against Canada in history. Just one suspect was convicted in connection with the bombing; another was shot dead, in British Columbia, last summer.
Yet that crime does not overshadow relations between the 770,000 Sikhs in Canada and their fellow Canadians. An important political constituency, Sikhs are courted by all Canadian parties. Canada insists that it has cracked down on the small minority who have brought their fight for Khalistan to the country. Mr Nijjar had been a vocal advocate for an independent Khalistan, but denied involvement in violence.
A deepening estrangement between the two countries would have economic implications, if modest ones. Canadian investors have become more important in India as they seek to profit from its fast-growing economy: cpp Investments, a giant Canadian national savings fund, has some $20bn invested in the subcontinent. India is Canada’s tenth-largest trading partner.
But the ramifications of Mr Trudeau’s accusations go far beyond the relationship between Canada and India. He said that Canada was “closely co-ordinating” with allies on the matter. Yet his eagerness to court support from Joe Biden, America’s president, and Rishi Sunak, Britain’s prime minister, on investigating the killing is awkward for both leaders. Joining Mr Trudeau in his condemnation of Mr Modi would make more difficult their efforts to court India as a way of reducing Chinese influence in Asia.
And yet to say nothing would mean leaving a close ally in the lurch. On September 18th the White House National Security Council cautiously said that it was “deeply concerned about the allegations referenced by Prime Minister Trudeau earlier today”.
On the following day Mr Sunak’s spokesman also took a cautious line. He said the British prime minister would not comment while investigations are under way and would not now take diplomatic action against India. India has also recently expressed concerns about support for Sikh separatism in Britain and Australia, raising concerns that it may take matters into its own hands in those countries, too.
If Mr Trudeau’s allegation is correct, the assassination points towards an activist turn in the operations of India’s intelligence services in the West, not least the Research and Analysis Wing (raw), India’s foreign-intelligence arm, the likeliest candidate for such a deed.
Carved out of the domestic Intelligence Bureau in 1968, reputedly with help from the cia, raw has focused mainly on gathering intelligence on, and conducting operations in, Pakistan, China and other neighbours of India. It has been suspected of conducting black operations to influence India’s neighbours, and to arrest and sometimes to kill its foes. But it is hard to find a precedent for such a seemingly overt attack in the West. It would be “madness to perpetrate an act like this in a Five Eyes country”, says one European former intelligence official, referring to the Western spy pact that connects Canada to America, Australia, Britain and New Zealand.
India may hope to emulate Israel’s Mossad, whose famously long arm strikes foes far away. But it risks being classed with Russia, whose murders abroad have provoked widespread condemnation and Western sanctions. If the allegation is correct, raw may have spotted a chance to get rid of a troublesome separatist in Canada and send a message to others like him. It is unclear how high a price India will pay.
Courtesy: The Economist