Canada said its security agencies have been “pursuing credible allegations” of Indian government agents being involved in the murder of Canadian Sikh leader Hardeep Singh Nijjar.
The accusations linking the Indian government to the killing of a Sikh separatist leader on Canadian soil have raised questions about Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s administration, said observers.
“What it means more broadly though, if there is credibility in (the allegations) – and there appears to be credibility in this – this does add another element of doubt on the character of the Modi government,” said Associate Professor of law John Packer of the University of Ottawa, adding that Mr Modi’s Hindu nationalist agenda and the preparedness to take extreme measures has already courted increasing controversy.
“First of all, we have to underline that this is at the moment an allegation, and it is actively denied on the part of India. And they have taken umbrage, of course, at the kind of precipitous character of the allegation and the accusation,” Prof Packer told CNA’s Asia First on Monday (Sep 25).
“However, there appears to be pretty strong, high confidence in terms of the intelligence services.”
PURSUING CREDIBLE ALLEGATIONS
Canada said last week that its security agencies have been “actively pursuing credible allegations” of Indian government agents being involved in the murder of Canadian Sikh leader Hardeep Singh Nijjar in British Columbia three months ago.
The separatist leader was shot dead outside a Sikh temple on Jun 18 in Surrey, a Vancouver suburb with a sizeable Sikh population.
He had supported a Sikh homeland, in the form of an independent Khalistani state, and was labelled a “terrrorist” by India in 2020.
“What will come after that is hard to tell, but that’s obviously not a good relationship and not a good direction of things,” said Prof Packer, who is also director of the university’s Human Rights Research and Education Centre.
“This is an important relationship in many respects. I think (ties between both countries) will be repaired.
“But I think the idea that a Canadian citizen can be killed, can be murdered – potentially assassinated by a government, a foreign state – on Canadian soil in front of a watching public, that’s absolutely shocking for Canadians.”
Last week, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said in an emergency statement to the House of Commons that “the involvement of any foreign government in the murder of a Canadian citizen on Canadian soil is an unacceptable violation of our sovereignty”.
Mr Trudeau said he had raised the murder with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the sidelines of the G20 summit. He also urged the Indian government to “cooperate with Canada to get to the bottom of this matter”.
India subsequently dismissed claims of involvement in the killing, with its foreign ministry calling the allegations “absurd”.
COULD TRUDEAU HAVE HANDLED IT DIFFERENTLY?
Prof Packer said Mr Trudeau could have handled the situation differently.
“The impetus, apparently, for the prime minister to have to disclose in parliament – which is quite spectacular and unprecedented action – was that it was going to be announced in the newspapers imminently,” he added.
“He felt he had to get out in front of that and not be accused of withholding information.”
Prof Packer, however, is not confident that the probe into the Sikh leader’s killing will progress smoothly.
“I think it’s not something that one would have high confidence in,” he said. “The persons who apparently carried out the murder seemed to escape very easily.”
The accusations have prompted tit-for-tat diplomatic expulsions on both sides.
Canada has also abruptly postponed a trade mission to India that was planned for early October, after tensions between the two nations flared during the G20 summit in New Delhi earlier this month.
But Prof Packer believes allies of both countries will not be forced to choose sides.
He added that the issue will not stand in the way of the ties that nations have built with each other in terms of global security and trade.
“The Indian relationship is extremely important. We just witnessed how Modi was himself received and given a state dinner, for example, in Washington recently,” said Prof Packer, citing Mr Modi’s recent trip to the United States in June, his first with the full diplomatic status of an official state visit.
TENSIONS SIMMERING FOR SOME TIME
Political scientist Gurharpal Singh, emeritus professor of Sikh and Punjab studies at SOAS, University of London, said tensions have been simmering for some time.
“We are at a difficult moment in the India-Canadian relationship,” he told CNA’s World Tonight on Tuesday.
“The way forward for both countries is to realise that the stakes are very high.”
The murder allegations could jeopardise Canada’s efforts in the Indo-Pacific, as it desires to be an active and reliable partner in the region, said analysts.
Trade relations between both sides could also be affected. Canada-India bilateral trade in goods reached about US$8.9 billion in 2022, a substantial 57 per cent increase over the previous year.
Canada has a Sikh population of more than 770,000, or around 2 per cent of its total population, some of whom have been staging protests outside India’s diplomatic missions in Toronto, Vancouver and Ottawa over the murder allegations.
“I don’t think in the immediate future that there is much prospect of this dispute leading to violence, either from the Sikh community or within India,” said Prof Singh.
“But it has the potential in the long term, if it’s not satisfactorily resolved, of leaving issues that might simmer and then potentially lead to further violence.”
India is also navigating carefully around the situation, as it is seeking to establish its role in world politics, he noted.
“India does not want its reputation, power and influence to be tarnished by allegations that it is part of extrajudicial killings in another friendly country.”