Canada-India relations have been rocked by Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s allegation that the Indian government assassinated a Sikh independence activist, Hardeep Singh Nijjar, on Canadian soil. What are the implications of Canada’s claim?
The claim is explosive for three reasons. First, it suggests that today’s Indian government is confident enough in its international standing to take such a momentous step. A democracy assassinating the citizen of another democracy, and on the latter’s own soil, is no small action. Second, if Prime Minister Trudeau releases credible evidence for his allegations, the assassination will give many of India’s partners pause, even if they do not publicly side with Canada. As a potential justification for the killing, Indians online and in local media have likened their government to that of Israel, another partner country of the West that protects against terrorist threats through political assassinations abroad. But some experts are also drawing comparisons to President Vladimir Putin’s Russia, which would be a much more fraught parallel for India. Finally, the allegations, particularly if proved true, put the United States in a very tough spot. The United States has spent the last decade strengthening its partnership with India. At the same time, Canada is a North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) ally and a friendly neighbor. Moreover, there is a significant population of Indian-origin citizens, including Sikhs, in the United States. Refraining from taking sides may not be a sustainable long-term policy for the U.S. government.
Nijjar was a member of the Khalistan movement. What is this movement, and why is India’s government concerned about it?
Supported by a minority of Indian Sikhs, the Khalistan movement is a separatist and identity movement that advocates, among other things, for carving out an independent Sikh homeland from the Indian state of Punjab. While it has historical roots, the movement reached its zenith in the 1970s and 1980s, when militant Sikhs led by preacher Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale took up arms against the Indian government and conducted a campaign of brutal violence that killed thousands of innocent people. In 1984, the clash between the government and the Khalistanis came to a head when Bhindranwale and his followers holed up in the Golden Temple—Sikhism’s holiest site—in Amritsar, Punjab, and fortified it. They were flushed out by the government in a mission called Operation Bluestar, in which the army stormed the temple and killed Bhindranwale and many of his followers. In retaliation, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, who authorized the mission, was assassinated by her own Sikh bodyguards. Her murder led to riots in India, and thousands of Sikhs were killed in and around New Delhi by gangs of vigilantes.
In recent years, the Pakistani government and its Inter-Services Intelligence agency have been accused of keeping the movement alive. As the reception in India of Nijjar’s assassination shows, the threat of a revitalized Khalistan movement and the prospect of re-igniting interreligious violence has united Indians across the political spectrum in support of the Indian government.
In addition to diplomatic reprisals, Canada and India are postposing their trade negotiations, which were scheduled for October in New Delhi. Do these tensions signal a change in future of their bilateral relationships?
Yes. It is going to be hard to recover from this. Canada-India relations have always been fraught on the issue of Khalistan and Sikh Canadians’ support for the movement. India has for years accused Canada of harboring Sikh terrorists and turning a blind eye to the activities of its Sikh citizens. In 1985, an Air India flight from Montreal to New Delhi was bombed by Canada-based Sikh terrorists, killing all 329 people, mostly Indian Hindus, on board. After a Canadian investigation, most of the accused were acquitted. Nijjar himself had been wanted under India’s Terrorist Act for his involvement in many cases, including a 2007 movie theater bombing in Punjab and the 2009 murder of a Sikh Indian politician Rulda Singh. Despite repeated requests from the Indian government, the Canadian government had not charged him or handed him over, and critics have argued that it has not cracked down adequately on his financing networks. The Indian government has also been concerned about threats made against Indian diplomats in Canada and the lack of official action against those who made the threats. The Indian government has particularly accused Trudeau of needing the support of a Sikh political base—Canada is home to the largest population of Sikhs outside of India—and therefore being soft on Sikh terrorism.
Several of Canada’s Western allies, including the United States, Australia, and the United Kingdom, have issued statements cautiously reacting to the accusations. How will this matter affect these countries’ strategic partnerships with India?
In the long run, barring further crises in the Canada-India relationship, the issue will probably recede. Given China’s rise, India is currently of huge strategic importance to the West. However, the situation does raise questions about what it means for India to become a great power. India has always been sensitive about the issue of its own sovereignty. Over the years, the country has not only complained about external interference in its internal affairs, but also touted its own respect for other countries’ sovereignty. Whether the Indian government is justified in its complaints about Canada’s laxity on Sikh terrorism or not, if it was behind Nijjar’s assassination, the act would count as a violation of Canadian sovereignty and an interference in Canadian domestic politics. That will not be easily forgotten by India’s partners.