Explosive assassination claims made over seven weeks ago by Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau have thrust India-Canada relations into crisis.
Despite the two countries’ shared position on the Israel-Hamas war and caution by Canada’s key allies, the downward spiral between Ottawa and New Delhi has continued unabated.
Trudeau accused the Indian government in September of complicity in the killing of prominent Sikh leader Hardeep Singh Nijjar on Canadian soil. Nijjar, an outspoken proponent of the Khalistan separatist movement for the establishment of an independent state in India’s northern Punjab region, was previously labeled a “terrorist” by Indian authorities.
The government of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi denounced Trudeau’s allegations as “absurd and motivated,” reiterating its long-standing grievances over what it describes as Canada’s continued sheltering of Khalistani terrorists and extremists.
The bombshell allegations have brought the India-Canada relationship to what experts have described as its lowest point ever. A massive trade deal that both sides hoped would be inked by the end of 2023 has been frozen indefinitely. Canada responded by expelling Indian diplomat Pavan Kumar Rai, prompting India’s expulsion of a Canadian diplomat in a mirror response.
New Delhi took the diplomatic tit-for-tat game to a new level in October, reportedly ordering Canada to recall over half —41 of 62 — of its diplomats in India. Trudeau neither confirmed the expulsions nor suggested that Canada is planning a proportionate response.
“Obviously, we are going through an extremely challenging time with India right now, but that’s why it is so important for us to have diplomats on the ground working with the Indian government and there to support Canadians and Canadian families,” he said, according to AP.
Trudeau’s recent attempts to contain, if not to dial down, tensions with India come amid growing apprehensions by Canada’s key allies. The Biden administration has made it a foreign policy priority to court India as a critical regional counterweight to China. The White House reportedly privately believes Canada’s assassination claims, but worries that the dispute may spill over into a more serious confrontation with deleterious consequences for its Indo-Pacific strategy.
“When Washington has to decide between New Delhi and Ottawa, given the current global geopolitical situation, it’s going to side with New Delhi,” Andrew Latham, Professor of International Relations and Political Theory at Macalester College in Saint Paul, Minnesota, and Senior Fellow at the Institute for Peace & Diplomacy, told RS.
The Trudeau government faces substantial domestic pressure as it navigates the Nijjar incident, Latham observed. “I think, in one sense, both sides would like this to go away because the largest diaspora in Canada is Indian. The Trudeau government is no position to alienate the large Sikh community in and around Vancouver and in and around Toronto,” he said, highlighting the salience of electoral politics to Trudeau’s thinking.
“And then you factor into that the fact that right now, it [Trudeau’s Liberal Party] is in a coalition government, more or less, with the New Democratic Party which is headed by Jagmeet Singh, who is also a Sikh. You can see that there is some partisan electoral dynamic at work here which is pushing the Trudeau government not to let this issue go away,” Latham added.
Singh, who was denied a visa by India in 2013 reportedly over his statements on the 1984 anti-Sikh riots in India, has taken a more strident stance on the Nijjar killing than Trudeau himself. “I will leave no stone unturned in the pursuit of justice, including holding Narendra Modi accountable,” he wrote on social media.
The Nijjar scandal was quickly overtaken, at least in international media headlines, by the outbreak of the Israel-Hamas war after October 7. A vast swathe of the global south has either criticized Israel or offered equivocal messages lamenting the loss of life and urging an end to hostilities.
Modi, by stark contrast, has taken a robust pro-Israel position much closer to the views of Canadian and most Western leaders. “Deeply shocked by the news of terrorist attacks in Israel. Our thoughts and prayers are with the innocent victims and their families. We stand in solidarity with Israel at this difficult hour,” the Indian Prime Minister wrote on the X social media platform X following the October 7 Hamas attacks.
India also abstained from a Oct. 27 vote in the UN General Assembly which called for a “ humanitarian truce” in Gaza. The measure was opposed by the U.S. and Israel and 12 other countries.
The Modi government took such a stance partly because it believes it is confronted with similar types of threats on its homeland, experts say. India “faces a number of secessionist threats and the prospect of, broadly framed, Islamic terrorism, which it likens to what Israel is facing. India and Israel have had a good relationship for a while and this is a continuation of it,” Latham noted.
Yet their shared pro-Israel position has proven not to be a mitigating factor in the cratering relations between Ottawa and New Delhi. “The old adage, the enemy of my enemy is my friend, actually doesn’t work here. I don’t think their common antipathy towards Hamas is sufficient to bridge the differences,” said Latham.
“Think about what’s at stake for the Canadian government: some foreign government, if this is all true, sent their agents into Canada to assassinate a Canadian citizen expressing views that are protected under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. And on the Modi side, here is the parallel: Israel has a long history of assassinating people beyond [Israel’s borders] who are enemies of the state of Israel, Modi is simply doing that,” Latham said. “I think that, over time, this will abate, but in the short to medium term, it’s just too raw at the moment, and not even this common position around Israel is sufficient to calm tempers.”
Though there are no signs of reconciliation anywhere on the horizon, both sides — as well as the deeply influential external stakeholder that is the Biden administration — have at least an implicit interest in ensuring that the Canada-India confrontation does not careen down the path of uncontrollable escalation.
Time will tell if that will be enough to prevent lasting damage to the bilateral relationship.
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