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India and Canada’s foreign ministers reportedly held secret back-channel talks in Washington last month after a bitter diplomatic feud erupted between the two countries over the killing of a Sikh separatist leader on Canadian soil.
The reported back-channel meeting between the top diplomats in September would be the first instance of high-level face-to-face discussions taking place between the two sides after Canada’s prime minister Justin Trudeau said there were “credible allegations” of the Indian government’s involvement in the murder of Sikh separatist leader Hardeep Singh Nijjar.
Subrahmanyam Jaishankar and his Canadian counterpart Melanie Joly held a “secret meeting” after Mr Trudeau went public with the allegations, government sources familiar with the meeting told the Financial Times. Officials in Ottawa and Delhi have not confirmed the meeting took place.
Mr Jaishankar had gone to Washington DC on an official visit in the last week of September to meet US secretary of state Antony Blinken and national security adviser Jake Sullivan.
India and Canada have been embroiled in one of their worst diplomatic rows in recent history. Canada ejected an Indian diplomat who it identified as heading the intelligence wing of the Indian High Commission in Ottawa, while India ordered a similarly high-ranking Canadian diplomat in Delhi to leave within five days.
India then suspended visa services in all categories for all Canadian nationals, citing “security threats” to its consulates.
In more retaliatory moves, the Indian foreign ministry also told Canada to withdraw 41 of its 62 diplomats in New Delhi by 10 October citing “parity” in an attempt to downsize the country’s diplomatic presence.
Government officials in Ottawa told the Financial Times that they were trying to resolve the situation and that Delhi had warned the loss of diplomatic immunity for Canadian diplomats staying in India beyond the deadline.
Canada has reportedly not withdrawn any of its diplomats yet, despite the deadline passing, as talks about the future of the Canadian mission in Delhi continue.
During his visit to the US last month, Mr Jaishankar said the Canada issue did come up during his talks with the US officials. Mr Blinken said he “urged” India to “cooperate fully” with Canadian investigations into the murder.
While at the Hudson Institute in Washington, Mr Jaishankar was asked about discussions of the Canada issue.
“To your question… Yes, I did [discuss it] with Jake Sullivan and Tony Blinken… They shared US views and assessments on this whole situation and I explained to them at some length… a summary of the concerns I had. I think hopefully we both came out better informed,” he said.
He added that the Canadian prime minister had made allegations “initially privately” and “then publicly”.
“Our response to him, both in private and public, was that his allegation was not consistent with our policy. And if he had, his government had anything relevant and specific, we would look into,” he said. “We were open to looking at it now. That’s where that conversation is at this point of time,” he said.
Earlier this month, Ms Joly said she would continue to engage with India “privately” as the Canadian government believes in having a “strong diplomatic footprint” in India.
“We are in contact with the government of India. We take Canadian diplomats’ safety very seriously, and we will continue to engage privately because we think that diplomatic conversations are best when they remain private,” she had said.
She acknowledged that tensions between the two countries are “more than ever”, while saying it is necessary for diplomats to be present on the ground. That is why Canada has a “strong diplomatic footprint” in India, she said.