Dialogue and political reconciliation are crucial for resolving political disputes
he recent diplomatic row between Canada and India has brought the Khalistan issue to the international stage. The mysterious assassination of prominent Sikh leader Hardeep Singh Nijjar has ignited the latest controversy.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has remarked, “Any foreign government’s involvement in the murder of a Canadian citizen on Canadian soil is an unacceptable breach of our sovereignty.” The sentiment was echoed by various government officials, all asserting that Canada possesses substantial evidence implicating India in the killing of one of its citizens.
Despite its denial of the allegations and use of various propaganda tactics, including the imposition of a visa ban on Canadian citizens, the Indian government has struggled to garner significant support from Western countries, notably the United States. The New York Times has reported that the United States, as part of the Five Eyes alliance, provided Canada with intelligence following the June incident in which Nijjar was fatally shot near Vancouver.
Canada remains steadfast in its commitment to investigate the matter, driven by concerns about the safety of other Canadian Sikh activists who may be at risk of being targeted by Indian authorities. In light of these concerns, Canada aims to exert pressure on India to curtail its covert operations within Canadian borders, preventing Canada from becoming a battleground for foreign agencies pursuing political opponents and dissidents on a global scale.
Despite encouragement from the United States and other Western allies for India to collaborate with Canada in the investigation of the Nijjar killing, India has regrettably shown a marked reluctance to participate in a transparent investigation.
Indian media, meanwhile, has harshly criticized Prime Minister Trudeau, often labelling him as pro-Khalistan. Prominent Indian commentator Suhas Palshikar has accurately captured the prevailing sentiment in India, where commentators on Canada’s affairs appear to be driven by nationalist sentiments. Very few Indian politicians or opinion-makers are open to discussing the possibility of Indian involvement in the murder.
India is unlikely to gain support from Western nations, given that the Five Eyes alliance, established in 1941 and comprising Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the UK and the US, has been cooperating with Canadian authorities. They have also urged India to cooperate with Canada in uncovering the truth behind the mysterious killings.
The Nijjar killing is suspected of being a covert assassination orchestrated by Indian intelligence. While India has engaged in covert operations in countries like Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Afghanistan, it appears they underestimated the strong Western aversion to foreign interference. China and Russia have faced severe repercussions in the past when they failed to satisfy the West that its suspicions of their involvement in violent crimes were baseless.
Canada’s accusations regarding India’s covert activities in Western nations have significantly damaged India’s reputation as a responsible Western ally. As The Economist has rightly pointed out, strategic partners typically resolve their differences behind closed doors and avoid harming each other’s citizens. Canada’s allies need to unite in delivering this message to Prime Minister Modi.
Many commentators have argued that India should not evade scrutiny solely because it acts as a counterbalance to China on behalf of the West.
The ongoing Canada-China dispute has also invited a closer examination of India’s actions.
The current situation has unsettling similarities with some past incidents, such as the capture of Indian operative Kulbushan Jadhav in Pakistan and the death of Sikh activist Paramjit Singh Panjwar in Pakistan last year. Had the international community held India accountable then, it might have prevented the unfortunate killing of Nijjar.
In 2010, a significant dispute had emerged when Canada began denying visas to Indian security personnel who had served in the Indian Occupied Jammu and Kashmir. This decision was prompted by the revelation that Maj Avtar Singh, an army officer accused of murdering Kashmiri lawyer Jalil Andrabi in 1996, had entered Canada with apparent support from the Indian government, despite having an outstanding arrest warrant. In response to these events, the Canadian High Commission in New Delhi, feeling embarrassed, ceased the issuance of visas to Indian security personnel serving in Kashmir.
Regrettably, most Indian leaders and media have failed to recognise that in Western countries, free speech is considered a sacred right. Individuals cannot be persecuted unless they are found to be engaged in violent actions or hate speech. Simply expressing political support for Khalistan is not a crime in Western nations, especially in Canada, which upholds high standards of human rights and personal freedom.
Canada is home to a significant Sikh population of around 0.8 million. Many of them migrated in the 1980s during the peak of the Khalistan movement. Canada has a policy of providing refuge to those persecuted based on political opinion, religion, caste or creed.
During the 1980s and 1990s, the Sikh community faced severe state repression, leading to a significant number of pro-Khalistan activists seeking refuge in the West. An influential segment of the Sikh diaspora continues to advocate for a Sikh homeland in India’s Punjab region. Many members of the Sikh diaspora, whose families sought asylum in countries like Canada, the United Kingdom and Australia during the tumultuous period in the Punjab, carry enduring memories of torture, mistreatment, and humiliation at the hands of Indian authorities.
Since taking office, the Modi government has had an aggressive approach to suppressing dissenting voices in Kashmir, the Punjab and Manipur. The government appears to rely primarily on repression and imprisonment. Anyone who raises concerns about public interest, criticises human rights violations or voices dissent is often labelled as anti-state or pro-Khalistan.
While it may have short-term effectiveness, such a strategy cannot be a substitute for dialogue and political reconciliation needed for resolving political disputes.
The writer is a freelance contributor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and tweets @ErshadMahmud