Trudeau’s Accusations Disrupt India-Canada Relations

The significance of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s recent revelation cannot be overstated. On Monday, he disclosed that his government has been investigating “credible allegations” of Indian government involvement in the assassination of Hardeep Singh Nijjar, a Sikh separatist leader and Canadian citizen, on Canadian soil.

These allegations have created a crisis in India-Canada relations, with New Delhi vehemently denying any involvement. Canada has responded by expelling a senior Indian official, and India has reciprocated by expelling a Canadian diplomat.

India has long been concerned about the presence of Sikhs in Canada advocating for an independent homeland, known as Khalistan, in the Indian state of Punjab. Until recently, this issue had not significantly strained India-Canada relations. In recent years, both countries had strengthened their trade and defense ties, shared strategic concerns about China, and engaged in multilateral partnerships like the G-20.

However, tensions have always lurked beneath the surface. In 2020, Trudeau’s expressions of solidarity with protesting farmers in Punjab, many of whom were Sikhs, irked New Delhi. This support coincided with an uptick in demonstrations by pro-independence Sikh diaspora members, not only in Canada but also in Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States. This year, several pro-Khalistan protests led to acts of violence against Indian diplomatic facilities.

India has consistently taken a tough stance on Sikh activists in Canada, associating them with a violent pro-Khalistan movement. In 1984, Sikh separatist extremists took control of a revered Sikh temple in Amritsar, India, leading to a military operation ordered by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi that resulted in hundreds of casualties. Later that year, Gandhi was assassinated by two of her Sikh bodyguards, leading to attacks against the Sikh community by Hindus, marking the worst religious violence since India’s Partition.

In 1985, Canada experienced Sikh extremist violence when terrorists planted a bomb on an Air India jet from Montreal to London, killing all 329 people on board. One of the initial suspects arrested was a Sikh man living in Vancouver. A Canadian commission later determined that security agencies had made errors and poor decisions contributing to the tragedy, which remains a major point of contention between India and Canada.

While the separatist insurgency in Punjab ended in the mid-1990s, India has consistently accused Pakistan of supporting the pro-Khalistan movement. Sikh separatism is no longer a significant security threat in India, but it remains an emotionally charged issue. New Delhi has zero tolerance for Khalistan advocates, both domestically and abroad. In 2020, leaders of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) accused the protesting farmers of being separatists, and Nijjar was formally categorized as a terrorist the same year.

In contrast, Canadian authorities must consider the rule of law, freedom of speech, and assembly when dealing with Sikh activists. Trudeau, currently facing declining popularity, may also seek political support from Canada’s nearly 800,000-strong Sikh community. Nevertheless, India believes that Canada has not adequately addressed its security concerns, as evidenced by Trudeau’s allegations, suggesting that New Delhi has taken matters into its own hands.

Trudeau’s accusations highlight that the Sikh issue is now affecting critical aspects of the India-Canada relationship. A few weeks ago, Ottawa announced the suspension of trade talks with New Delhi, likely connected to the Nijjar investigation. Their bilateral ties seem increasingly unable to withstand shocks, which is concerning for India. Canada is a vital defense and commercial partner, a significant investor, and home to a growing Indian diaspora and many Indian students.

Australia, Canada, the U.K., and the United States, all countries with sympathizers of Sikh separatist causes, are members of the Five Eyes intelligence alliance. Ottawa’s allegations could heighten concerns about their own security among other alliance members. However, Western allies may hesitate to confront India out of fear of antagonizing the Indian government, just as they have been cautious about expressing concerns regarding New Delhi’s democratic backsliding.

Nonetheless, Western countries cannot simply overlook Trudeau’s allegations. Unlike threats to democracy within India, state-sponsored assassinations on Western soil pose direct security threats that cannot be shrugged off.

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