Relations between India and Canada are on thin ice over allegations that Canada is backing separatist groups. The plot has thickened with the assassination of fugitive Hardeep Singh Nijjar, leading to a diplomatic tit-for-tat between the two nations.
While the world watches, including the United States and Australia weighing in, India firmly denies any wrongdoing. Meanwhile, Canada’s silence on what some fear may be a similar assassination, but this time linked to China, is raising eyebrows.
In an intervention that strained Indo-Canadian relations, India has suggested that certain Canadian politicians and authorities might be indirectly supporting separatist groups that aim to create the independent Sikh state of Khalistan. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told reporters in July 2023 his country was merely upholding “freedom of expression.”
“We have an extremely diverse country and freedom of expression is something that we have,” he said.
Trudeau publicly blamed India for the crisis and said in the House of Commons that any involvement by the Indian government in Nijjar’s death would be “unacceptable.” If claims of Indian involvement were true, said Canadian Foreign Minister Mélanie Joly, it would be a “grave violation of our sovereignty.”
A high-ranking Indian diplomat was immediately expelled by Canada as a result of the allegations. India swiftly responded by summoning Canada’s high commissioner to inform him that a top Canadian diplomat based in India would be expelled.
According to the statement from the Indian Ministry of External Affairs, “The decision reflects the government of India’s growing concern over the interference of Canadian diplomats in our internal matters and their involvement in anti-India activities.”
India Denies Accusations
The claims of complicity in the killing have been strongly denied by India, whose government also expressed in a statement its concerns about Canada extending refuge to “Khalistani terrorists and extremists.” In addition, it criticized Canada for permitting “murders and people trafficking” to occur on its territory.
“We have seen and reject the statement of the Canadian prime minister in their parliament, and also the statement by their foreign minister,” the statement said.
“Allegations of [the] government of India’s involvement in any act of violence in Canada are absurd and motivated. Such unsubstantiated allegations seek to shift the focus from Khalistani terrorists and extremists, who have been provided shelter in Canada and continue to threaten India’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.”
It also highlighted what it described as “inaction” by Canada on the separatist issue.
“The inaction of the Canadian government on this matter has been a long-standing and continuing concern. That Canadian political figures have openly expressed sympathy for such elements remains a matter of deep concern.
“The space given in Canada to a range of illegal activities including murders, human trafficking and organised crime is not new. We reject any attempts to connect government of India to such developments. We urge the government of Canada to take prompt and effective legal action against all anti-India elements operating from their soil,” it said.
Later, India abruptly discontinued Canadians visa services without issuing a formal notice. BLS International, which manages Canadian visa application centers, made the opaque disclosure by posting the following notice on its Canadian website: “Important notice from the Indian Mission: Due to operational reasons, with effect from 21st September 2023, Indian visa services have been suspended till further notice.”
In an effort to clarify the disclosure, Indian External Affairs Ministry spokesperson Arindam Bagchi told reporters, “Security threats being faced by our high commission and consulates in Canada have disrupted their normal functioning.”
The Canadian High Commission in India had already urged its local Indian staff to evacuate the building because diplomats there had allegedly received threats on social media. “Global Affairs Canada is assessing its staff complement in India. As a result, and out of an abundance of caution, we have decided to temporarily adjust staff presence in India. All of our locations are staffed by diplomats and locally engaged staff to ensure business and operational continuity,” it said in a statement.
What Is Khalistan?
The Khalistan movement seeks to create an independent Sikh state in the Punjab area of India. New Dehli asserts that Pakistan is supporting and funding this movement.
The recent killing of Nijjar—who was wanted by Interpol—in Surrey, British Columbia, served as the catalyst for the latest diplomatic conflict. He was shot dead in the parking lot of a Sikh temple in June.
Timeline of Hardeep Singh Nijjar’s Entry and Stay in Canada
1997: Initial Entry into Canada
- Hardeep Singh Nijjar enters Canada using a fake passport under the name Ravi Sharma.
- After entering Canada illegally, Nijjar applies for asylum.
- Claims fear of persecution in India due to belonging to “a particular social group.”
- Asylum claim was rejected as it is identified as a “fabricated narrative.”
Attempt at Gaining Citizenship Through Marriage
- Nijjar tries to secure Canadian citizenship through a “marriage” agreement.
- The woman who agreed to marry him had also arrived in Canada in 1997, sponsored by a different husband.
- This attempt also failed.
- Nijjar reportedly appealed the rejection of his asylum claim in Canadian courts.
- Continued to claim that he is a Canadian citizen, although it remains unclear how and when he actually gained citizenship.
Employment in Canada
- Works as a plumber and a truck driver in Canada.
- Gained popularity among Khalistani separatists.
Canadian Authorities’ Knowledge
- For nearly a decade, Canadian authorities are aware that Nijjar is a wanted criminal in India.
- Nijjar has over a dozen criminal cases including murder and other terrorist activities against him in India.
Interpol Red Corner Notice
- Due to what India saw as Canadian authorities’ failure to act, an Interpol Red Corner Notice (RCN) was issued against Nijjar by New Delhi in November 2014.
Nijjar, born in 1977 in Punjab had ties to the Khalistan Tiger Force (KTF), Indian law enforcement agencies say. He faced arrest in India in the 1990s, and in 1997, he went underground and fled under a false identity.
Evidence of his connections to extremist organizations became stronger over time, according to the Indian government, resulting in his inclusion on a most-wanted list that was given to Trudeau in 2018 by the then-Chief Minister of Punjab, Captain Amarinder Singh.
In the eyes of the Indian community, Canada’s stance on extremist organizations is controversial. The World Sikh Organization (WSO), KTF, Sikhs for Justice (SFJ), and Babbar Khalsa International (BKI) are some of the organizations that freely operate from Canadian soil, India says. The murder of well-known Indian musician Sidhu Moose Wala by a criminal with Canadian ties underlined such concerns.
Canada Hints at Its Own Espionage Activities
Canada has acknowledged that it carried out surveillance operations on Indian diplomats. Intelligence, some of which was provided by an unnamed member of the Five Eyes intelligence alliance, was collected during a month-long investigation. Canadian officials are believed to have travelled to India multiple times, seeking cooperation in the investigation into Nijjar’s killing.
The Five Eyes is an intelligence alliance comprising Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States
The Los Angeles Times reported, citing an AP story that quoted a Canadian official, that “the allegation of India’s involvement in the killing of a Sikh Canadian is based on surveillance of Indian diplomats in Canada.”
“Let’s not fool ourselves, Hardeep Singh Nijjar was not just a plumber,” Michael Rubin, a former Pentagon official, told Asian News International. “We’re talking about transnational terrorism and what the United States did to Qasem Soleimani and Osama bin Laden is really no different than what India is alleged to have done in this case.”
However, British Columbia’s Premier David Eby said that the information implicating India in the murder of Nijjar was all “open-source information.”
Canadian Hindus Face Khalistani Threats
Gurpatwant Singh Pannu, head of the Khalistani group SFJ, which is outlawed in India, has urged Hindus living in Canada to leave the country. “Indo-Canadian Hindus, you have repudiated the allegiance to Canada and the Canadian constitution,” he said in a video titled “Leave Canada, Indo-Hindus, Go India” on social media.
There have been a number of crimes against Hindus and their places of worship in Canada that have been linked to Khalistani separatists. They include:
- The bombing of an Air India flight in 1985, killing all 329 people on board.
- Defacement of Shri Ram temple in Mississauga in 2023 with anti-India graffiti.
- Desecration of a Gauri Shankar Mandir temple by Khalistani extremists in Brampton in 2023.
- Defacement of BAPS Swaminarayan temple in Toronto with anti-India slogans in 2022.
- Hindu temples defaced in Toronto with anti-India graffiti in 2022.
Indian media reports have alleged that Canadian law enforcement authorities showed a lack of action in addressing these matters.
Critical List Accessed by Newsweek
Newsweek has accessed a list of Khalistani alleged terrorists or extremists who India wants to be extradited from Canada.
• Gurwant Singh (also known as Bath, Gurpartap Singh, and Harjeet Singh Bajwa): Allegedly involved in arms smuggling and financing terrorism.
• Gurpreet Singh: Accused of plotting attacks in India.
• Gurjinder Singh Pannun: Leader of the SFJ, which is banned in India.
• Sundeep Singh Sidhu (alias Sunny): Accused of drug trafficking and financing extremist activities.
• Arshdeep Singh (alias Arsh Dalla): Allegedly involved in human trafficking.
• Satinderjit Singh Brar (alias Goldy Brar): Accused of plotting terrorist attacks.
• Parvikar Singh Dulai: Accused of arms smuggling.
• Satnam Singh (alias Satta) and associates Halwinder Singh Athwal and Sarabjit Singh Walia: Allegedly involved in financing terrorism.
India says that despite its persistent efforts, Canadian authorities have remained non-committal about their extradition.
U.S., Australia Went Soft on India
Jake Sullivan, the U.S. national security adviser, told reporters at the White House, “As soon as we heard from the Canadian prime minister publicly about the allegations, we went out publicly ourselves and expressed our deep concern about them.”
He added: “We are in constant contact with our Canadian counterparts. We are consulting with them closely, we support the efforts that they are undertaking in this investigation, and we have also been in touch with the Indian government as well.”
At the U.N., Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong expressed her “concern” and said that Canberra is “closely monitoring these developments.”
When asked whether he regretted describing Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi as “the boss,” Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese earlier told a reporter to “seriously chill out a bit.”
During an address in which he leveled the accusations against India, Trudeau said, “There is no doubt that India is a country of growing importance and a country that we need to continue to work with.”
Selective Silence Over China
Canada has been assertive about its concern over India, but its silence on an unrelated death now being linked to China has raised concerns among some observers. The death of Wei Hu, a Beijing critic, is being investigated by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP). Hu was a target of Operation Fox Hunt, a Chinese global anti-corruption campaign that critics say is used to silence opponents. Though it refrained from openly commenting on the issue, the RCMP confirmed that it was aware of “foreign actor interference activity in Canada.”
Hu died in July 2021 in what was first thought to be a suicide. However, Global News in Canada reported that a witness had told the RCMP that Hu had complained he was being harassed by the Chinese Communist Party and that security authorities had visited his father in China. Hu told a friend that he had received a warning online, indicating whoever was responsible knew where his children went to school, the outlet reported.
There is currently no publicly available evidence to show that Hu was murdered.