- Under no circumstances India be expected to tolerate hate speech and violent crimes in the name of free speech and expression due to the inaction of the “rule of law” abiding nations.
- Accusing a friendly nation without substantial evidence is highly unprofessional, hampering diplomatic efforts towards maintaining a stable relationship and further deteriorating the trust between the two nations.
- Debunking its “soft state” status, the Indian side has given an aggressive rebuttal by expelling a Canadian diplomat and has refused all allegations, calling them “absurd and motivated.”
Canada has been surfacing all over the news recently, be it Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s non-engagement in bilateral dialogue with his Indian counterpart PM Narendra Modi during the G-20 Summit in New Delhi or the recent aeroplane controversy, extending Trudeau’s stay in India after the summit. However, the two nations have hit rock bottom in their relationship following Trudeau’s remarks regarding a “potential link” between India and the death of Hardeep Singh Nijjar, a Canadian citizen and an alleged Khalistani terrorist for India. The rift began on September 18, when PM Trudeau gave an official statement in the Canadian parliament, accusing the Indian government agency of killing Khalistani activist Nijjar in June 2023.
The Khalistan Movement and Insurgency
In India, the Khalistan separatist movement gained popularity in the 1980s. The movement focused on the Punjab state, where Sikhs are a majority. The movement or the insurgency lasted for a decade, with the separatists demanding a separate nation known as Khalistan. The movement was led by the militant leader Jarnail Singh Bhindranwala. The government took action against the separatist movement and cracked down on the insurgency. During Operation Blue Star, ordered by the then PM Indira Gandhi, the government forces arrested and killed many militants taking refuge in the Golden Temple in Amritsar in 1984. Consequently, her two bodyguards assassinated Indira Gandhi for desecrating the holy Sikh temple during Operation Blue Star. This fuelled anti-Sikh sentiments, leading to violent riots across the country. India saw one of the most violent religious unrests in the country during this period.
The Khalistan movement lost momentum soon after in India. Though there are some supporters of the cause, there are no active insurgents in Punjab state today. However, the situation is not the same overseas. With time, many Khalistani activists have migrated to foreign lands and are fighting for their separatist cause under the protection of foreign rules and regulations. Among these, the most significant ones are the US, the UK, Australia, and particularly Canada, where the Sikhs make up about 2 per cent of the country’s population. The Indian government, from time to time, has reminded these nations to take legal action against the increasing Khalistani terrorists.
Accusing a friendly nation without substantial evidence is highly unprofessional and hampers diplomatic efforts towards maintaining a stable relationship. It further deteriorates the trust between two nations, which is crucial in international relations to maintain peace and harmony.
Recently, the Khalistan supporters have organised demonstrations and protests outside Indian consulates under the name of the right to free speech and expression, which has angered New Delhi. Despite India’s clear criticism of such “extremist activities”, the failure of foreign governments to tackle them has become an obstacle to good relations. Australian officials showed limited support by looking into the vandalism of Hindu temples by Khalistani activists but clarified that they would not interfere with Australian Sikhs expressing their views on an independent nation. The UK and the US have taken a similar stance where they have condemned the violence in such protests, especially outside the Indian High Commission and Consulate in London and San Francisco, respectively. Still, they are open to peaceful protests and activities. In March, the protestors waved yellow “Khalistan” banners and removed the Indian Flag from these diplomatic buildings. They have also meddled with the celebration of Indian Independence Day on August 15 in these countries. Canada, too, has come in for New Delhi’s most open criticism for what it sees as a failure to oppose the pro-Khalistan movement in the country.
The Diplomatic Tussle
The ties between India and Canada have witnessed their ups and downs, but the reason it is facing a new low now can be attributed to the death of Hardeep Singh Nijjar. A Canadian citizen, Nijjar, was shot outside a Gurudwara in British Columbia on June 18, making him the third Khalistani extremist to have mysteriously died in recent months in Canada. India designated him a terrorist in 2020 and sought his extradition in 2022 for his alleged links to the Khalistan Tiger Force – a group campaigning for independent Khalistan in the Punjab region of India.
The Canadian PM said in a statement that he “possesses credible allegations potentially linking” India to the murder of Nijjar. Trudeau spoke in the Canadian House of Commons regarding the alleged state-sponsored assassination of militants on Canadian soil by New Delhi. He further stated, “Any involvement of a foreign government in the killing of a Canadian citizen on Canadian soil is an unacceptable violation of our sovereignty. Canada is a rule-of-law country; the protection of our citizens and defence of our sovereignty are fundamental.” Soon after these harsh remarks, a key Indian Diplomat was expelled, and his identity was revealed, breaking the diplomatic protocol of confidentiality by Canada. India was expected to fully collaborate with the Canadian investigations into the death of Nijjar.
Debunking its “soft state” status, the Indian side has given an aggressive rebuttal. Expelling the Canadian diplomat, New Delhi has refused all allegations, calling them “absurd and motivated.” According to the statement by the Ministry of External Affairs, India is a “democratic polity with a strong commitment to the rule of law.” As per officials, such unsubstantial accusations are an attempt to shift focus from Khalistani extremists and militants, who have been provided shelter in Canada and continue to threaten India’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. Furthermore, the “inaction” by the Canadian government to control anti-Indian sentiments in Canada has been a long-standing and continuing concern. Moreover, in the name of vote bank politics, Canadian politicians have often expressed sympathy with the Khalistani extremists and terrorists, which is a deep concern for New Delhi.
Seeing India take such an assertive stance and getting no support from other members of the Five Eyes Alliance, an intelligence-sharing alliance comprising the US, the UK, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada, Trudeau has been pushed to the back foot. In a later statement, he said, “We are not looking to provoke or escalate. We are simply laying out the facts as we understand them.” However, no proof or evidence has been provided from the Canadian side showing a connection between India and Nijjar’s death.
The Way Forward
The Khalistan issue is still a susceptible topic for New Delhi. The scars of the historic episode of violence where thousands of people lost their lives are still fresh in India’s memories. Thus, it has opposed Khalistani Movement, denouncing violence and separatist sentiments in Canada. This rift between the two countries happened when relations strengthened due to their Indo-Pacific collaborations and policies against a common foe, China. Both sides were also negotiating a trade agreement, which has now been paused due to the ongoing tensions. Furthermore, India has suspended its VISA services to Canadian citizens, and both sides have issued travel advisories to maintain caution and vigilance.
Accusing a friendly nation without substantial evidence is highly unprofessional and hampers diplomatic efforts towards maintaining a stable relationship. It further deteriorates the trust between two nations, which is crucial in international relations to maintain peace and harmony. Although an open and unbiased investigation into Nijjar’s death is paramount to upholding the principle of justice and equality, does it provide any grounds for baseless allegations by one sovereign nation against another? Moreover, the West, mainly Canada, should amend its ways of dealing with extremist elements in their country.
In recent months, New Delhi has tolerated vandalism of temples and other religious symbols, attacks on diplomatic buildings, an open threat of death to Indian diplomats and staff, and a provocative parade celebrating the assassination of Ms Gandhi by Khalistani extremists. Under no circumstances India be expected to tolerate hate speech and violent crimes in the name of free speech and expression due to the inaction of the “rule of law” abiding nations.
(Rahul Ajnoti holds a Master’s in Politics and International Relations from Pondicherry University. His areas of interest are India’s Foreign Policy, South Asia, and European Studies. The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own.)