Last Monday, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau stood up in Parliament and spoke of “credible allegations of a potential link between agents of the government of India and the killing of a Canadian citizen Hardeep Singh Nijjar” this past June near Vancouver. In essence, Trudeau has accused India of assassinating Nijjar. In response, India has denied any link to the murder and called the accusation “absurd” and “motivated.”
After the announcement, the Canadian public broadcaster, CBC, served outrage instead of presenting an objective account. In a television broadcast, journalist Evan Dyer described the alleged killing “the action of a rogue state” and implied that India was “nominally a democracy.” Journalist Andrew Chang said that if Trudeau’s accusation were true, the killing would represent “the highest form of interference possible.”
Practicing some selective amnesia of its own contentious dealings with its indigenous peoples and Quebec separatists, Canada views itself as a beacon for human rights, a platform for free speech, and a refuge for the persecuted, such as Sikh separatists. India views Canada as a valuable friend and trade partner but also as interfering in its internal matters (e.g., Trudeau’s support of Sikh separatists over the years both in Canada and India as well as his support of Indian farmers during their 2020–2021 strike) and as a safe haven for terrorists. A situation — especially one as explosive as this — requires a calm, mature, and comprehensive analysis where all sides are examined, beginning with a presentation of the evidence, an understanding of the context and a review of the use of assassination.
First and foremost, since Trudeau has made the allegations in public, he also needs to present concrete evidence to the public. At this point, with his unsubstantiated and heavy statement, he has made himself a champion of the Sikh separatists. There is some talk particularly in the India media that this may be a political tactic to win their votes or that Trudeau is unduly influenced by his Sikh friends and colleagues.
Either way, he may have unleashed a force he cannot control. His statement has emboldened Canada’s Khalistanis (supporters of a secessionist Sikh state in Punjab). A leader of the group Sikhs for Justice, Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, has directed a threatening video to Hindus living in Canada, claiming that “you have repudiated your allegiance to Canada and Canadian constitution” and demanding that they “leave Canada and go to India.” He is also planning protests outside Indian embassies this week. Trudeau needs to remember that he is the prime minister for all Canadians — including the roughly 630,000 people of Indian origin who are not Sikh, not to mention the other 37 million Canadians — and that Canada should be a welcoming and safe place for all Canadians.
Sikh separatism has a long history in India and Canada
No event occurs in isolation. The Sikh issue has a complex and nuanced backstory that is essential to understand. In the 1930s, when India was still a British colony, the Sikhs began asking for their own nation, but when India became an independent country in 1947, for a variety of reasons, it did not ultimately happen. However, the dream remained alive, and an active and often violent separatist movement surged during the late 1970s.
This culminated in three significant events. In June 1984, the Indian army stormed the Golden Temple in Punjab to flush out Sikh militants; they found some 200 militants, a large cache of arms, as well as the bodies of 41 men, women and children who had been tortured to death. In October 1984, Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards whom she had trusted implicitly. In uncontrolled retaliation and rampage, over the next four days, rioters killed some 3000 innocent Sikhs in Delhi.
Then, in June 1985, an Air India flight from Toronto to Mumbai was bombed over Ireland killing all 329 people onboard — children and grandparents, mothers and fathers, travelers heading on summer holidays as well as people returning home. Although airline officials, Canadian police and the Indian government strongly suspected Sikh separatists in Canada, the investigation by Canadian authorities was lackadaisical, late and botched, resulting in few concrete convictions; a report many years later by Justice John Major called it a “cascading series of errors”. He said, “For too long the greatest loss of Canadian lives at the hands of terrorists has somehow been relegated outside the Canadian consciousness.” After that fiasco, it would not be surprising if India lacked confidence in Canada’s skill or will to bring Sikh terrorists to justice.
India is the country with the largest Sikh population in the world, roughly 25 million people (about 2% of India’s total population), most living in the northern state of Punjab, one of India’s 28 states. However, the dream of Khalistan now seems to burn more brightly outside of India, amongst the overseas population in places like the UK, Australia and Canada. This could be because the Khalistan movement is outlawed in India, because Sikhs in India are more focused on jobs and day-to-day concerns or because Sikhs living abroad want to strengthen their region of origin and have the means to do so.
For a country that supposedly persecutes its Sikhs, India surprisingly had and has Sikhs in influential and respected professions such as doctors, engineers, scientists, academics, lawyers and business leaders. Many Sikhs serve in India’s armed forces and have often been heads of the Indian army, navy and air force. They have also occupied powerful roles in government, including the very top ones: Giani Zail Singh was President of India from 1982 to 1987, and Manmohan Singh was Prime Minister of India from 2004 to 2014.
Today, some 1.4 million people of Indian origin live in Canada, about 3.7% of the country’s population. Roughly half of those are Sikhs. Canada has the third-largest Sikh population in the world, after India and the UK. Within Canada, the largest concentrations are in Brampton, Ontario, and Surrey, British Columbia. Sikhs are a powerful minority in Canada, with substantial political influence. Some of the Sikhs living in Canada, like Nijjar, are Khalistanis. Others are just happy to have made their home in Canada and are focused on their family, school, work, gurudwaras and, in general, their lives in Canada.
Assassinations are more common than you think
Nijjar was born in the Indian state of Punjab. He had been living in Canada for the past 20 years and was deeply involved in the Khalistan movement. India branded Nijjar as a terrorist three years ago and there was a warrant for his arrest. Interpol linked Nijjar to a 2007 bombing of a cinema in the Indian state of Punjab. Indian authorities wanted him for attacking a Hindu priest and in general inciting rebellion among the Sikhs in India. As the saying goes, “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.” And indeed, Indian Prime Minister Modi’s terrorist is Trudeau’s freedom fighter: two sides of the same coin.
Assassinations — or targeted killings, as the Americans now prefer to call them — are not new nor are they infrequent nor are they unknown. Just check Wikipedia. At times, what Canada may call a rogue state has indeed committed these assassinations. For example, when Andrew Chang of CBC did his analysis of the current Canada–India row last Wednesday in his show About That, he noted the 2018 murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul by agents of the Saudi government and the poisoning of erstwhile Russian Intelligence Officer Sergei Skripal (a British citizen) in the UK allegedly by the Russian government.
However, Chang did not mention any of the assassinations by Canada’s neighbor and friend, the US, nor those by its close strategic partner Israel, with whom Canada also cooperates on “the promotion of human rights globally.” Nor did he mention possible actions by the UK’s MI6. Trudeau was deeply disturbed by “the killing of a Canadian citizen on Canadian soil,” and rightfully so. However, he may have forgotten that the CIA has a kill list. In 2002, the US assassinated Qaed Salim Sinan al-Harethi; it was the killing of a Yemeni citizen on Yemeni soil. In 2011, the US assassinated a US citizen on Yemeni soil via a drone strike by the order of the Obama administration. That same year, a team of US Navy SEALS famously killed Osama bin Laden, the al-Qaeda leader, on Pakistani soil. In 2020, Major General Qasem Soleimani was also killed by a US drone strike near Baghdad: the killing of an Iranian citizen on Iraqi soil. The list of American assassinations is long.
The list of assassinations by Israel is even longer. It consists of mostly members of the PLO (Palestinian Liberation Organization; also fighting for an independent homeland) but also includes a West German rocket scientist in Munich, an Egyptian nuclear scientist in Paris, a Brazilian Air Force lieutenant colonel in Sao Paulo and a Canadian engineer/designer in Brussels.
While the UK government’s assassinations are not as easily enumerable, its 1994 Intelligence Services Act protects its MI6 agents who commit any crimes abroad, including kidnap, torture and murder.
Both the UK and the US are members of the Five Eyes intelligence sharing network, together with Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Therefore, Canadian intelligence works closely with the CIA and the MI6.
It might be naïve to be so surprised and upset by a possible targeted killing by another country’s government. It seems it’s not such an uncommon action but one committed by both so-called “rogue states” as well as “allies,” authoritarian states and democracies. Perhaps it’s not “the highest form of foreign interference” — invasions and election manipulations may arguably supersede it — but it seems to be one important tool in the foreign affairs toolkit of many countries. A BBC article written several years ago asks and discusses the question: “Can state-sponsored assassination work as a strategy?” This is a question worth considering without melodrama or self-righteous indignation.
This issue between two democracies is too potentially destructive to allow it to roll out in an uncontrolled manner. In the interest both of maintaining cohesiveness within Canada and keeping a good working relationship with a valued partner, Trudeau should walk back his provocative and public allegation, at least until he can present concrete evidence; then, too, he can do it behind closed doors. He could also let non-Sikh Indo-Canadians know that they too are a valued part of Canada and will be protected. The Canadian press can also help to calm the waters by giving a nuanced, historical and multi-perspective context of the situation. They could even present some of the Indian side of the story — like the informative counter-perspective to the CBC given in a recent episode of the podcast Cut The Clutter by Shekhar Gupta, Editor-in-Chief of The Print. Finally but importantly, a third party respected by both sides and well-versed in the ways of international relations, such as the US or the UK, can mediate talks between India and Canada so that they can soon again be the friends they should and need to be.
[Anton Schauble edited this piece.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
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