The murder of the Khalistan leader Hardeep Singh Nijjar in Canada in June catapulted New Delhi into a full-blown diplomatic row with Ottawa in September. After Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau linked India to the murder of Nijjar, Indo-Canadian relations plummeted to a new low. Nijjar was shot down by two masked men outside a gurdwara in British Columbia’s Surrey. The killers got away in a car driven by a third person. India has categorically denied any involvement and dismissed Trudeau’s charges as “absurd” and politically motivated.
The charges led Canada and then India to expel intelligence officers posted in each other’s country, prune the staff in their respective diplomatic missions, and suspend all bilateral engagements. India also suspended its visa service in Canada, a country it described as “a safe haven for terrorists”.
The allegations have raised “deep concerns” among some Western allies in the Anglosphere. Trudeau told the Canadian parliament that there were “credible allegations of potential links between agents of the government of India and the killing” of Nijjar. A report in The New York Times complicated the situation further when it quoted unnamed US officials as saying that the US had assisted Canada with intelligence that linked India to the murder as part of the “Five Eyes Alliance”, which is a broad intelligence-sharing arrangement among the US, Canada, the UK, Australia, and New Zealand.
Khalistan flags are seen outside the Guru Nanak Sikh Gurdwara Sahib in Surrey, British Columbia, on September 18. Hardeep Singh Nijjar was gunned down in his vehicle while leaving the gurudwara’s parking lot in June. | Photo Credit: Daryll Dyck/The Canadian Press/Via AP
Equally, however, the unfolding drama has put the US and its Western allies in a spot. In recent years, most of them have built strong ties with India that they do not want to jeopardise. India is pivotal to their strategy in the Indo-Pacific region as a counterbalance to China’s aggression in Asia. The US, in particular, finds itself in a bigger dilemma than the others. The US cannot brush aside Trudeau’s charges against India since Canada is a close strategic ally, but India is a strategic partner that is critical in the Indo-Pacific region where China’s growing assertiveness is a common concern for both the US and India.
US President Joe Biden has invested heavily in the relationship. In June, he played host to Prime Minister Narendra Modi when he came to the US on his first state visit. The two sides have also signed a range of agreements that have further widened cooperation and consolidated the growing partnership. To show India’s importance in his scheme of things, Biden made a special effort to reach New Delhi a day before the G20 summit in September only to attend a private dinner that Modi hosted for him.
In addition, even in the highly polarised political situation in the US, there is robust bipartisan support from both Democrats and Republicans for strong ties with India. With the Canada imbroglio, the Biden administration is busy grappling with a situation where it does not want to be seen compromising the US’ core principles, such as respect for the international rule of law and freedom of speech, but it is equally keen to find a pragmatic solution to the current crisis to ensure that it does not alienate India.
Jumping the gun?
The New York Times report suggested that in the aftermath of the killing, US intelligence agencies assisted Canada in its investigation, but what appears to be the “smoking gun”—the intercepted communications of Indian diplomats in Canada that indicate their involvement in the plot—was gathered by Canadian officials themselves, the report said.
Hardeeep Singh Nijjar, president of the Khalistan Tiger Force, was shot dead in Surrey, Canada, by unknown assailants on June 18. | Photo Credit: By special arrangement
Trudeau mentioned “credible allegations” that Nijjar’s killing had “potential links” to India. Indian experts pointed out that “credible allegations” were not evidence. Also, “potential links” suggest that the investigation is as yet incomplete. Is that the reason why Trudeau sought India’s cooperation to join the dots of the probe? “Why does he seek our cooperation if he already has sufficient evidence of an Indian link?” asked former Indian Foreign Secretary Kanwal Sibal in an opinion piece. “If he does not have such evidence, what has pushed him to make a formal statement in Parliament prematurely?” he asked.
Nijjar was president of the Khalistan Tiger Force (KTF), an organisation that supports and carries out terrorist acts in support of a separate Khalistan state. He entered Canada on a forged Indian passport and was given Canadian citizenship after his application was rejected twice. Why Canada ignored India’s complaints and the “red corner” notice issued by Interpol seeking Nijjar’s arrest remains a mystery. “It is a general tendency of Western intelligence agencies to ignore intelligence provided by India about fugitives in their country,” said Vivek Katju, a former Indian diplomat who has dealt with such issues in the past.
Trudeau’s accusation came on the heels of the G20 summit in New Delhi. It is now known that Canadian National Security Adviser Jody Thomas made two trips to New Delhi in August and September to inform her counterpart, Ajit Doval, about the “credible allegations” linking India to Nijjar’s killing. How India reacted to the allegations is not known, but Ministry of External Affairs spokesperson Arindam Bagchi said Canada had not shared any “credible evidence” with them. Then, at a meeting on the sidelines of the G20 summit, Trudeau claimed that he had raised the matter directly with Modi, with no better result. Trudeau said that he also informed Biden, who brought it up with Modi as well.
Trudeau’s subsequent demeanour at the summit was frosty. He stayed away from the President’s dinner and the launch of the Global Biofuel Alliance. An airplane snag forced him to extend his stay by two days, but he did not use the time to engage with the Indian government, nor did Delhi make efforts to reach out to him. Trudeau also refused the alternative aircraft India offered him.
Sikh demonstrators deface a Narendra Modi placard during a rally outside the Consulate General of India in Toronto on September 25. | Photo Credit: Cole Burston/AFP
This episode can be read as a diplomatic failure on New Delhi’s part. That Trudeau’s anger was simmering comes through from his comment to The New York Times where he said he would like to see “a number of people thrown in jail”. He also said he wanted lessons to be learned and “changes made to the way Indian intelligence services operate”. Strong words these, but there was no mention of what steps he would take to tone down the Khalistan rhetoric against India.
Upsetting the house of cards
Indo-Canadian bilateral ties have been strained in the recent past over the Khalistan issue. New Delhi has been aggrieved that its complaints and concerns about Khalistan supporters in Canada are routinely dismissed by Ottawa. The Canadian government glossed over the issue even after separatist activists attacked Hindu temples and the Indian consulate in Ottawa. It soft-pedalled Sikh hardliner activity even after Khalistan supporters took out a tableau depicting Indira Gandhi’s assassination and glorifying her killers in a procession at Brampton.
The Canadian government’s stance was that since no actual physical harm was done, it allowed the procession because it prioritised the freedom of expression of Canadian citizens. According to the Indian version of the Trudeau-Modi meeting on the G20 sidelines, Modi raised these complaints with Trudeau and asked for urgent steps to be taken.
“Canada soft-pedalled Sikh hardliner activity even after Khalistan supporters took out a tableau depicting Indira Gandhi’s assassination and glorifying her killers in a procession.”
The revelation that the US helped Canada with intelligence suggesting Indian involvement in the Nijjar murder has added a new dimension to the controversy. There are doubts about how seriously US intelligence can be taken, given its track record of manufacturing evidence. Take, for instance, the false evidence the US provided at the UN Security Council to justify the war against Iraq in 2003.
The opposition and wider public in Canada are surprised that Trudeau has not produced any hard evidence to establish India’s involvement so far. In an editorial, The Globe and Mail asked why the government should keep the evidence secret in the name of national security when, essentially, it should be in the public domain.
Britain’s Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, US President Joe Biden, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen at the G20 summit in New Delhi on September 9. | Photo Credit: Ludovic Marin/AFP
Michael Kugelman, director of the South Asia Institute at the Washington, DC-based Wilson Center, has argued that Trudeau might have concerns about going public with evidence because it could compromise the intelligence-gathering process. When Trudeau made the allegations, Kugelman said, it was inevitable he would face heavy pressure, both in Canada and India, to come out with the evidence. According to him, Canada and the US are urging India to cooperate in the investigation because they want to get to the bottom of what happened and to signify that they value their relations with India. “If you try to cut India out altogether, the optics won’t be good for the US’ and Canada’s relationships with India,” added Kugelman.
The question remains, should one take US intelligence seriously? Kugelman said intelligence gathering is far from an exact science, that there are honest mistakes, and there is wilful deception, but he stressed that this killing happened “next door”, on the soil of a critical ally, with allegations directed towards a critical party. “In a sensitive case like this, the US will presumably have both the will and capacity to get the intelligence right.”
It is not clear why Trudeau went public when the investigation was not yet complete. One possibility could be that The Globe and Mail informed the Canadian Prime Minister it was about to publish a story linking India to Nijjar’s killing, based on intelligence inputs. This could have prompted Trudeau to make the announcement in the Canadian parliament. He also asked a New Delhi-bound trade delegation to postpone its visit and then abruptly called off the negotiations.
The other compelling reason could be that Trudeau wanted to divert attention from a long-pending investigation on Chinese interference in Canadian elections that he was forced to set up. His detractors have alleged that China intervened in favour of Trudeau’s Liberal Party candidates in the 2021 election they won. The Indian link in the Nijjar murder allows Trudeau to shore up his political stock by establishing himself as a tough leader who pushed back against Chinese meddling in Canadian affairs, and also against India, a potential ally.
The Liberal Party currently trails the Conservatives by 20 points. But parliamentary elections in Canada are due in 2025, which gives Trudeau enough time to recover the political ground he has lost. The Nijjar affair could also help him raise his profile within the Sikh community in Canada. Trudeau’s government is supported by 25 MPs of the New Democratic Party of Jagmeet Singh, an influential voice in the Canadian government whose pro-Khalistan sympathies are well documented.
- The murder of Khalistan leader Hardeep Singh Nijjar in Canada in June sparked a diplomatic dispute between India and Canada, with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau linking India to the killing.
- This dispute led to the expulsion of intelligence officers, reduced diplomatic staff, and suspension of bilateral engagements between the two countries. India also suspended its visa services in Canada.
- The situation poses a dilemma for the US, as it values its relationships with both Canada and India. While Trudeau’s allegations are taken seriously, the US is keen to maintain its strategic partnership with India.
A festering wound
In 2015, Modi became the first Indian Prime Minister to visit Canada in 42 years, in what was seen as an attempt to reset bilateral relations. However, the Khalistan issue has been a bone of contention in Indo-Canadian relations for a long time. When Justin Trudeau’s father, Pierre Trudeau, was Prime Minister, he turned down a request from India in 1982 to extradite Talwinder Singh Parmar, a wanted criminal and Khalistan activist. Parmar was implicated as the mastermind of the June 1985 mid-air explosion on Air India aircraft Kanishka that killed 329 people, most of them Canadian citizens. In 2010, Stephen Harper, the Conservative Party Prime Minister, apologised for the bombing and acknowledged the gross negligence of the Canadian government for not preventing the deadly tragedy.
Narendra Modi and then Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper arrive at the Gurdwara Khalsa Diwan in Vancouver on April 16, 2015. Modi’s visit to Canada in 2015 was the first by an Indian Prime Minister in 42 years. | Photo Credit: Don Mackinnon/AFP
An earlier black chapter in Canada’s history was the Komagata Maru episode in 1914 when 376 people on board a ship from Hong Kong to Vancouver were refused permission to disembark in Canada. Naval vessels escorted the passengers—most of them Sikhs—out of Canadian waters, forcing them back to Calcutta. In 2016, Justin Trudeau publicly apologised for Komagata Maru, one of the starkest manifestations of Canada’s racial policy. Trudeau’s apology was widely appreciated, but it also raised expectations that he would express regret for the Kanishka bombing. When he made no mention of that, many saw it as another example of his appeasement of pro-Khalistan groups in Canada.
Despite the current hype, Nijjar is neither a “poster boy” for the 8,00,000-strong Sikh diaspora nor is there wide support for Khalistan. But the 1984 pogrom that followed Indira Gandhi’s assassination, and the lack of justice even after four decades, continues to disturb many Sikhs in Canada. The issue of an outside agency’s involvement in the killing of a Canadian citizen is unlikely to go down well with most people in Canada’s 1.4 million Indian diaspora. Pro-Khalistan supporters are likely to take advantage of this sentiment to highlight their anti-India agenda.
“The issue of an outside agency’s involvement in the killing of a Canadian citizen is unlikely to go down well with most people in Canada’s 1.4 million Indian diaspora. Pro-Khalistan supporters can exploit this.”
In Punjab, however, a June survey in The Tribune newspaper showed that most Sikhs identify themselves as Indians, irrespective of the grievances they may have with political parties. Similarly, many Sikhs who have made Canada their home and taken Canadian citizenship also flaunt their Indian origin. Therefore, even if they support Trudeau for his liberal views, it should not be construed as their support for Khalistan.
Having the difficult conversation
Trudeau has taken a huge political risk by making this charge against India. How this will impact his political future remains to be seen. On India’s side, as the dust settles, many of the punitive measures that have been put in place are likely to be gradually eased.
While these realities might improve with time, the political trust that has been lost in recent weeks could take much longer to be restored. While the strong reactions from different sections in India, and perhaps the US, could force Trudeau to rethink his Khalistan policy, India too might feel compelled to tone down its belligerence.
“This is a wake-up call for all sides,” said Kugelman. As long as China remains the top foreign policy concern for the US, it will want its relationship with India to remain strong. However, if the US believes Canada’s allegations to be true, Washington will need some awkward discussions with New Delhi to ensure there are no security threats on US soil, especially in relation to its Sikh diaspora. “That’s not a conversation you want to have with a close and critical partner,” said Kugelman.
This incident will also make India revisit its US policy and ties with other major powers. How India maintains its strategic independence after this episode could certainly become a subject of growing interest.
Pranay Sharma is a commentator on political and foreign affairs-related developments. He has worked in senior editorial positions in leading media organisations.