Canadian PM Justin Trudeau accused the Indian government of being involved in the murder of a pro-Khalistan Sikh leader on Monday, sparking a row between the two nations.
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What are the allegations
Trudeau, while speaking to the House of Commons on Monday, claimed that Canadian security agencies have been attempting to link “agents of the government of India” to the June murder of Hardeep Singh Nijjar, a Sikh community leader designated as a “Khalistani terrorist” by India, in the Surrey suburb of Vancouver.
If substantiated evidence were to come forward and implicate Indian government officials in the killing of a Canadian national, it would amount to an “unacceptable violation” of Canadian sovereignty, Trudeau said. He added that the killing went against the conduct expected by “free, open and democratic societies” and promised that all necessary steps would be taken to hold the perpetrators accountable.
As a consequence, the Canadian foreign affairs minister, Mélanie Joly, informed that Pavan Kumar Rai, an Indian diplomat and the station chief of RAW in Canada, had been expelled from the country, while expecting the Indian government’s cooperation in the investigation, while answering questions from reporters in Ottawa. She added that Trudeau has already got in touch with British PM Rishi Sunak, along with US President Joe Biden, asking for their assistance in the matter as well.
According to the Canadian public safety minister, Dominic LeBlanc, the country’s national security advisor and the head of their spy agency have touched down in India for a meeting with their Indian counterparts and to brief them on the allegations lobbed against them. The active homicide investigation is being helmed by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, he added.
Indian govt’s reaction
The Indian ministry of foreign affairs, in an official statement on Tuesday, “completely rejected” the allegations by branding them as “absurd and motivated”, while launching counter-allegations that Canada was harbouring and providing shelter to Khalistani terrorists and extremists that pose a threat to Indian security. The ministry instead urged the Canadian government to take firm and legal action against “anti-India elements” and the minority of the Sikh community that still hold desires to set up a separate Khalistani state, present on their turf.
The foreign ministry also responded to the expulsion of Rai by ordering an unnamed Canadian diplomat on Indian soil to leave the country within 5 days, justifying it as the government’s “growing concern” over Canada’s interference in “internal matters”. Cameron MacKay, the Canadian ambassador in New Delhi, has also been summoned to be notified of these developments.
Deemed as “Khalistani terrorist” by NIA, beloved to Canadian Sikhs
Canada is home to around 8 lakh Sikhs, with the majority of them residing in Brampton, a suburb in Toronto, and Surrey. Nijjar, 45, presided as a chief figure at the Guru Nanak Sikh Gurdwara in the city of Surrey, and was publicly dedicated in the campaign for a separate Sikh state of Khalistan, often rolling out peaceful protests against “violation of human rights in India”, according to the World Sikh Organization.
In June, he was shot dead by two masked gunmen in his pickup truck parked outside the gurdwara, sparking outrage and fear within the Canadian Sikh community, one of the largest outside of India. While the RCMP identified three suspects, no arrests were made. The police also couldn’t confirm whether the killing was an “assassination” motivated by politics, but still classified it as a “targeted incident”.
The Indian government has accused him of radicalising the Sikh community in Canada to align themselves with the Khalistani cause by inciting malice and violent activities detrimental to the Indian government. It had also accused him of being a part of a conspiracy to murder a Hindu priest in Punjab, something Nijjar has publicly denied in Canadian media. A bounty of $12,000 was thus placed on him, along with getting designated by the NIA as a wanted criminal and a “terrorist” under the UAPA act in 2020.
The World Sikh Organization, who view Nijjar’s murder as a politically motivated assassination, said that Nijjar had warned members of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service of threats over his life almost a year before his death. In 2016, he sent a letter to Trudeau in which he rubbished the allegations against him as “baseless”, while defending his pro-Khalistani activism as “peaceful, democratic” and valid according to the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Sikh groups across Canada have hailed Trudeau’s remarks as a positive step towards justice, with Moninder Singh, a spokesman for the British Columbia Sikhs Gurudwara, appreciating that the prime minister acknowledged the presence of a “foreign hand” behind the murder. The World Sikh Organisation declared that Trudeau simply confirmed what was already believed by the community—”India actively targets Sikhs in Canada”.
Jagmeet Singh, leader of the oppositional New Democratic Party, demanded that the murder entail suitable consequences, while expressing his shock that a foreign government was linked to the murder of a Canadian citizen on Canadian soil. If the allegations were to be proven true, it would “represent an outrageous affront to Canada”, said Conservative leader Pierre Poilievre, who called on the Indian government to act with transparency and coordinate with Canadian authorities in the investigation.
India-Canada ties on rapid decline
The Canadian government’s open accusations against the Indian state have been widely predicted by commentators to further erode already deteriorating bilateral ties between the two nations. Trade talks that were earlier scheduled to happen at the end of the year have been frozen. The Canadian government gave minimal information on the decision, while India clarified that talks were paused due to “certain political developments”.
Tensions were visible at the recent G20 summit held at New Delhi as well, with Trudeau claiming that he inquired PM Modi about Nijjar’s murder in their meeting. On the other hand, Modi accused his Canadian counterpart of failing to take adequate action against “anti-India” and pro-Khalistani elements that are aiming to revive militant support of Khalistan.
Barely a month after Nijjar’s death, hundreds of protestors gathered outside India’s High Consulate building in Toronto to voice their outrage over the Indian government’s alleged connection to the murder, with a smaller group protesting in favour of the Indian state. The event attracted further controversy when banners emblazoned with slogans of “Kill India” and labelling Indian diplomats as “killers” were spotted.