Signs that fraught relations between Canada and India were heading further south became clear during the G-20 summit in New Delhi earlier this month, when Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, unlike other Western leaders, did not hold formal bilateral talks with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Instead, the two leaders raised serious concerns with each other on the sidelines of the summit, where Modi brought up “continuing anti-India activities of extremist elements in Canada,” according to his office.
Experts say India-Canada ties—historically driven by trade and the presence of a large Indian diaspora in Canada—have slowly deteriorated in recent years over claims from India that Canada has fostered sympathy toward a Sikh separatist movement, and counter-claims from Canada accusing Indian officials of interfering in its domestic politics.
That relationship hit rock bottom on Monday when Trudeau made an explosive statement before the Canadian Parliament that Ottawa was pursuing “credible allegations” from Canadian intelligence against New Delhi for playing a role in the assassination of a prominent Sikh Canadian leader, Hardeep Singh Nijjar, on Canadian soil in June. The Canadian government expelled a senior Indian diplomat shortly after Trudeau’s comments; India swiftly retaliated by issuing a statement Tuesday that denied any involvement in Nijjar’s death and expelled an unnamed senior Canadian diplomat.
“Today's allegation has dealt a major blow to the relationship; the damage to the relationship will not be easily repaired,” says Brahma Chellaney, a former adviser to India's National Security Council, based in New Delhi.
Michael Kugelman, director of the South Asia Institute at the Wilson Center think-tank, says the combination of increasing Sikh activism in Canada, growing Indian pressure on Ottawa, and Ottawa's unwillingness to address Indian concerns has “plunged bilateral relations into a deep crisis today.” He adds, “The knives are out.”
How did India’s relationship with Canada fare historically?
Canada is home to the world’s largest Sikh population outside India, who number nearly 770,000 people, or 2.1% of the country’s population.
Tensions among Indian and Canadian officials first simmered in 2015, when Trudeau came into power and appointed four Sikh ministers to his then 30-member cabinet. In the past, Indian diplomats have also raised issues over Sikh Canadians who express support for the Khalistan movement, which calls for a separatist Sikh homeland in India. One Hindu temple in Canada was vandalized last year with graffiti that read “death to India” in Urdu and “Khalistan,” and Sikh Canadians have organized local referendums over Sikh independence from India.
In 2018, Trudeau’s trip to India was criticized when his delegation, which included a Sikh contingent, met Jaspal Atwal, a Sikh man convicted of the attempted murder of a visiting Indian cabinet minister. (Canada later rescinded Atwal’s invitation to a dinner reception in New Delhi.)
But these issues appeared to have taken a backseat when the two countries began to boost ties to counter Beijing. Until recent months, India-Canada relations were in a relatively good place, says Kugelman. “Commercial ties were robust and strategic convergences, especially shared concerns about China, were strengthening cooperation,” he says.
Seeking to diversify the Canadian economy, Trudeau saw India as a critical partner under its Indo-Pacific strategy, given the country’s growing economic and demographic importance in the region. As recently as May, both sides appeared optimistic that an early-progress trade agreement on automobiles, agriculture, and information technology would be signed.
How have India-Canada relations deteriorated in recent months?
In early June, India’s Minister of External Affairs, S. Jaishankar, warned during a press conference that Canada giving space to Sikh separatists “was not good for the relationship” between the two countries. The comments came in response to a question over a social media clip of a parade held by Khalistani separatists in Brampton, Ontario, on June 4. “For us, how Canada has dealt with the Khalistani issue has been a long-standing concern because, very frankly, they seem to be driven by vote-bank politics,” Jaishankar said, a reference to Sikh Canadians, who form a plurality of Indian Canadian voters.
Ten days after Jaishankar’s warnings, Nijjar was shot dead at a Sikh temple in Vancouver.
In a surprise move on Sept. 1, Canada paused trade negotiations with India. Last week, ahead of Trudeau's accusation, Canada canceled a trade mission to India planned for early October. “Trade appears to have become a casualty of deepening tensions,” Kugelman says.
Kugelman adds that rising tensions have coincided with growing Sikh activism, not only in Canada but also in the U.K., U.S., and Australia, including widespread protests held in March over the manhunt for another Sikh separatist leader, Amritpal Singh. "The stepped-up activism has sharpened New Delhi's concerns while Canada, citing freedom of speech, has held back," he adds.
What do Trudeau’s accusations mean for wider diplomatic ties?
The spat will have ramifications for Canada’s position globally. In the past, Canada, a middling Western power, has seen strained relations with other rising nations like China when, in 2019, Trudeau accused Beijing of "pressure tactics" to secure the release of a senior Huawei executive being held in Canada on charges of fraud linked to alleged violations of U.S. sanctions against Iran. In 2018, it had another spat with Saudi Arabia when Canada’s foreign minister expressed support for several human rights activists detained by Saudi officials.
The latest turn of events in India came after Canada reportedly held weeks of behind-the-scenes discussions leading up to the G-20 summit with its closest allies—including Five Eyes intelligence-sharing countries—to publicly condemn Nijjar’s murder. But they avoided raising Trudeau’s concerns with Modi publicly at the G-20, according to a Western official who spoke to the Washington Post.
On Tuesday, U.S. National Security Council spokesperson Adrienne Watson said the White House was “deeply concerned” about the Canadian allegations. “It is critical that Canada’s investigation proceed and the perpetrators be brought to justice,” Watson said in a statement.
Derek J. Grossman, a senior defense analyst at the RAND Corporation, says it will be interesting to see how the Biden Administration handles the situation. “Taking a stand either way—for India or for Canada—would anger the other,” he says. “Regardless, I think the Biden Administration wants to keep India at its side at all costs to help counter China through the Indo-Pacific strategy. This is the top goal.”
On India’s part, Kugelman says the country may go further in its response “by demanding the allegations be retracted, by downgrading relations, by reducing security at the Canadian embassy, and so on,” he says. “Neither capital wants that, but let's be clear, this may be the lowest level to which this relationship has sunk. It won't be easy to return to the old normal anytime soon,” he adds.
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