The year 2023 has witnessed an historic low in the diplomatic relations between Canada and India. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s accusation of the Indian government’s involvement in the fatal shooting of Canadian Sikh leader Hardeep Singh Nijjar on June 18 has sent shockwaves through the international community.
Trudeau’s candid statement, asserting that Canada’s national security apparatus had credible reasons to believe that “agents of the Indian government” were responsible for the killing of Nijjar, added fuel to the fire. This bold move by Canada led to the expulsion of Indian diplomat Pavan Kumar Rai, the head of the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) in Canada.
The Indian government has swiftly and vehemently rejected these allegations, deeming them “absurd”. In a retaliatory move, it has expelled a Canadian diplomat, accusing Canada of interfering in its internal affairs and supporting anti-India activities. This tit-for-tat exchange underscores the gravity of the situation and showcases the deepening chasm between these two nations.
While the consequences of this diplomatic standoff could have far-reaching implications for Canada-India relations, Canada remains resolute in its determination to investigate the matter. This resolve stems from concerns about the safety of other Canadian Sikh activists who might find themselves on the Indian government’s ‘hit list’.
In light of these concerns, Canada aims to exert pressure on India to curb its covert operations within Canadian borders, preventing Canada from becoming a battleground for foreign agencies targeting political opponents and dissidents on a global scale.
Nijjar’s tragic murder reverberated across Canada, sparking massive protests and extending even to the US and the UK. The influential Sikh diaspora, deeply troubled by the incident, demanded not only a transparent investigation but also organized anti-BJP protests in major Canadian cities. The unrest was not limited to Canadian soil; in July of this year, Sikh demonstrators in London forcefully removed the Indian flag from the country’s high commission and damaged the building’s windows.
Canada houses a significant Sikh population, the second-largest in the world after India, comprising nearly two per cent of the country’s total population. Sikhs wield considerable political influence, with Sikh members of parliament and a Sikh-led political party, the New Democratic Party. Canada’s House of Commons comprises a total of 338 Members of Parliament (MPs), and among them, 18 are Sikh MPs.
The Sikh community’s cultural and religious hub, the gurdwaras, serve not only as places of worship but also as community centres. Gurdwaras play a pivotal role in fostering community cohesion, supporting Sikh politicians, advocating for Sikh political rights, and raising awareness of human rights violations in Punjab, India.
The Khalistan movement remains a persistent undercurrent within the Sikh diaspora even though there is no active insurgency in Indian Punjab. The Indian government has long pressured Western governments, particularly Canada, to control the sizable Sikh diaspora, fearing their potential support for the Khalistan movement in India.
The Indian government’s concerns intensified during the 2020 farmer protests, when the BJP labelled Sikh farmers as ‘Khalistanis’ in an attempt to discredit their public support. This tactic resulted in the arrest of Sikh activists, including fiery orator Amritpal Singh.
Canada has now mobilized its Western partners – the US, the UK, and Australia – seeking their support in the face of these allegations. All have expressed their shock and voiced their concerns, highlighting the international ramifications of the Canada-India tension.
This standoff draws eerie parallels with the arrest of Indian spy Kulbushan Jadhav in Pakistan and the killing of Sikh activist Paramjit Singh Panjwar in the country last year. World leaders largely ignored Pakistan’s complaints during Jadhav’s arrest, allowing India to escape accountability.
Had the international community held India accountable at that time, Nijjar’s killing might have been averted. This episode underscores the need for world leaders to join hands with the Canadian government in uncovering the truth, ensuring that no government dares to conduct covert operations beyond its borders in the future.
Canada’s steadfast commitment to investigating the matter demonstrates its determination to protect its citizens and uphold the principles of justice and accountability. As the world watches, it is a reminder that no government should act with impunity, and the global community must stand united in the pursuit of justice and human rights for all.
At its core, this standoff is a stark reminder that all nations should unequivocally condemn human rights violations, custodial killings, forced disappearances, and crackdowns against dissenting voices.
The writer is a freelance contributor. He tweets ErshadMahmud and can be reached at: ershad.mahmudgmail.com