[Kanwal Sibal is the former foreign secretary of India. Vikram Sood is the former chief of India’s foreign intelligence agency, the Research and Analysis Wing. Both are noted policy wonks, formidable intellectuals and prolific writers.]
India-Canada relations have reached a nadir. On October 20, Canada withdrew 41 diplomats and their families from India. This came after the Indian government threatened to revoke diplomatic immunity for Canadian diplomats. India’s action came after Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau claimed that there were “credible allegations” that India was behind the killing of Hardeep Singh Nijjar in suburban Vancouver. Trudeau made this claim in the Canadian parliament, triggering off an international furor.
Nijjar was a naturalized Canadian citizen who immigrated from India in 1997. He first arrived in Canada on a fraudulent passport and his citizenship application was rejected many times. His attempt to claim citizenship through marriage failed because Canadian ‘immigration officials considered it a marriage of convenience.’ After ten years of reapplying repeatedly, Nijjar became a Canadian citizen in 2007.
Nijjar was an outspoken advocate for the creation of Khalistan, an independent state for Sikhs to be carved out of Indian territory. Sikh extremists waged a bloody insurgency in the 1980s demanding Khalistan. Two of them killed Indira Gandhi, the then prime minister of India, in 1984. In 1987, a research paper by the CIA concluded that Sikh extremists posed “a long-term terrorist threat” that would prove impossible for India to stamp out. It also went on to say:
“Sikh extremists will continue to rely on violence—in particular, assassination—as their principal tactic for gaining a Sikh state.”
In Indian eyes, Nijjar was a Sikh extremist. In 2020, India designated Nijjar as a terrorist, and, two years later, India’s National Investigation Agency (NIA) accused him of plotting to kill a Hindu priest in Punjab. Even before Canada granted Nijjar citizenship, the Interpol had issued a Red Notice against him. The Interpol defines a Red Notice as “a request to law enforcement worldwide to locate and provisionally arrest a person pending extradition, surrender, or similar legal action.”
Canada’s dodgy record on backing Sikh terrorists
Much history lies behind India’s strong reaction to Canadian accusations. India has long held that Canada has provided refuge to Sikh terrorists. The memory of Air India (AI) flight 182 still lives strong for the country. On June 23, 1985, Sikh terrorists blew up this flight to India, which exploded off the Irish coast. All 329 people on board died and only 131 bodies were retrieved from the sea.
While AI 182 was still in the air, another explosion at Tokyo’s Narita airport killed two Japanese baggage handlers. If it had exploded over the Pacific, another plane would have disappeared, leading to hundreds more deaths.
Canadian authorities arrested Talwinder Singh Parmar, the leader of an extremist group called Babbar Khalsa that is now banned in Canada and India and Inderjit Singh Reyat, an electrician, on various weapons, explosives and conspiracy charges. Both were acquitted of all charges. Pierre Trudeau, Trudeau’s father, refused to extradite them as prime minister.
It is now clear that Canadian authorities did not do enough to prevent these attacks. They also bungled the investigation. After much public pressure, the Canadian government set up a public inquiry in 2006 headed by a former Supreme Court judge. In 2010, this inquiry concluded that a “cascading series of errors” had led to the “largest mass murder in Canadian history.”
Trudeau has carried on his father’s policy of not extraditing terrorists to India. Over the years, Canada has become home to Sikh extremists who want to dismember the Indian state. Almost a year ago, these extremists organized the Khalistan Referendum. Extremist Sikhs in Canada voted for the secession of the state of Punjab from India. This 2022 referendum posed a simple question: “Should India governed Punjab be an Independent Country?” Trudeau has remained deaf to Indian concerns and protests, claiming that free speech in Canada includes even the dismemberment of India, hate speech and promotion of terrorism. He conveniently forgets that every country, including liberal Canada, puts reasonable restrictions on freedoms, which are never absolute.
Trudeau and the Anglosphere have an ax to grind
It is utterly unclear as to who killed Nijjar. Sikh terrorists have now split into many cults, many of them with violent gangs. Often, they raise money for Sikh independence to fund their lavish lifestyles. Musicians have joined these cults, glamorizing violence and propagating hedonism. Many glorify gun culture and terrorism. A rival gang could have killed Nijjar. So could have an intelligence agency in a false flag operation to discredit India after a successful G20 summit.
Hence, it is surprising that Trudeau is making such a big deal about a citizen who arrived in Canada on a false passport after committing crimes in India. Irritatingly, Trudeau is mobilizing the Anglosphere against India. US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan waded into the controversy, promising that India would not get any special exemption for its actions. Australia’s intelligence chief has also supported Trudeau’s accusations on Nijjar’s murder.
The Anglosphere has formed the “Five Eyes,” a multilateral intelligence-sharing network of over 20 different agencies of Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States. The Five Eyes includes both surveillance-based and signals intelligence. The Anglosphere seems to be alluding there is proof of Indian involvement but, so far, has been unwilling or unable to offer any evidence.
More importantly, the actions of the Anglosphere reek of hypocrisy. Let us assume for a moment that India killed Nijjar even though this is a preposterously untrue assumption. Nijjar was a terrorist conspiring to kill Indian citizens and dismember the Indian state. The Anglosphere killed Iranian General Qasem Soleimani in Iraq, terrorist Saudi Osama bin Laden in Pakistan and thousands in drone strikes around the world. Trudeau, Sullivan & Co do not have the privilege of outrage over so-called Indian actions, especially when they lack any evidence.
The Anglosphere is reflexively slipping into old colonial habits in condemning India. This condemnation might have ulterior motives. The Anglosphere is unhappy about Indian leadership of the Global South, which has come at the cost of these Western English-speaking countries. India has led the G20 successfully and admitted the African Union into the organization. The Anglosphere failed to get a condemnation of Russia at the G20 summit at Delhi. Tarnishing India’s reputation is in the interest of the Five Eyes because they might be seeking leverage for the Anglosphere.
Why is Trudeau recklessly undermining India-Canada relations?
Trudeau has a history of poor judgment, especially in foreign policy. Unlike Henry Kissinger or Deng Xiaoping, he is ideological, not realistic. In 2018, he accused Saudi Arabia of human rights violations and demanded the release of imprisoned activists. This led to a breakdown in Saudi-Canada relations, which were only restored this year.
To understand Trudeau’s actions, we have to understand his ideology. He is the head of the Liberal Party of Canada, which the Conservative opposition has accused of a “radical woke agenda.” In September, retired lieutenant général Michel Maisonneuve and his wife argued that Trudeau’s woke agenda was destroying Canada.
According to this agenda, India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is a Hindu fascist political force that oppresses minorities. Trudeau sees himself as standing up to dark rightwing forces threatening democracy. He has a white savior complex, which motivates him to take on the BJP. The left-leaning press in the Anglosphere fills the wind in his sails, enabling Trudeau to position himself against Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. In the gray world of foreign policy and international relations, this Manichean goodie versus baddie pantomime is childlike, immature and destructive.
Trudeau’s woke ideology sees Canada as a liberal democracy that stands for Western values such as democracy, minority rights and freedom of speech. Therefore, Sikhs who form 2.1% of the Canadian population — a higher percentage than in India — have the right to argue for dismemberment of the Indian state. This extreme ideology also gives extremist Sikhs the right to support and conduct violence and terrorism for the secession of Punjab from India.
Trudeau’s ideological absolutism on this extreme version of Canadian version liberalism has led to terrible consequences for the country. As The Guardian details, “Canada has a dark history with Nazis,” who took advantage of lax immigration laws to come into the country. Sikh extremists and terrorists did the same. Note that Sikhs form 57.69% of the population of Punjab and the vast majority of them do not want to secede from India. Despite forming just 1.7% of the Indian population, Sikhs occupy the highest offices of the state, achieve great success in business and are revered cultural figures. Manmohan Singh, an erudite Sikh economist, was prime minister from 2004 to 2014.
Ideology is not the only reason for Trudeau’s reckless Russian roulette with India- Canada relations. Like other parliamentary democracies, the Canadian prime minister has to command a majority in the lower house of the parliament. Out of the 338 seats in the House of Commons, Trudeau’s Liberals have 158. This is short of the required majority of 170. Trudeau is in power thanks to the New Democratic Party (NDP), which has 25 seats.
Jagmeet Singh, a charismatic and dapper Sikh, is the leader of the NDP. He has long supported the creation of Khalistan. Last year, he supported Sikh peoples’ right to seek independence and the Khalistan Referendum. It is Singh’s consistent support for Khalistan that led the Sikh-led Manmohan Singh government to deny him a visa to India in 2014.
Trudeau is in trouble at home. The speaker of the Canadian House of Commons recently resigned “after he praised a Ukrainian veteran who fought for a Nazi military unit during World War II.” Trudeau needs the NDP’s support to stay in power. As any good politician, Jagmeet Singh is therefore extracting his pound of flesh. For sheer political survival, Trudeau has little option but to wave the Khalistan flag to stay on as prime minister.
What is the way forward?
India regards Canada as an important partner. Thousands of Indians study and live in Canada. The country has a good education system, a dynamic economy and fantastic healthcare. Indian and Canadian businesses are working closely on some of the world’s most pressing matters. India’s Reliance Industries and Canada’s Brookfield Asset Management will soon be manufacturing renewable energy and decarbonisation equipment in Australia. Brookfield and other Canadian funds have invested billions of dollars into the Indian economy.
Until recently, India and Canada were discussing a free trade agreement. On September 1, Trudeau’s government paused these talks. The way forward is to renew these talks, sign a trade agreement and deepen the economic relationship between two of the world’s leading democracies.
Trudeau is living on borrowed time. Even if his coalition government does not fall, he is likely to lose the 2025 elections. Till then, India will have to keep calm and carry on. Things have moved on from 1985 and India is a much greater power that has to stand up for its interests against Canada until Ottawa embarks on a more sensible India policy. If Conservative leader Pierre Poilievre becomes prime minister, he must control Khalistani terrorists on Canadian soil, improve ties with India and conclude the win-win India-Canada trade agreement as a top priority.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
For more than 10 years, Fair Observer has been free, fair and independent. No billionaire owns us, no advertisers control us. We are a reader-supported nonprofit. Unlike many other publications, we keep our content free for readers regardless of where they live or whether they can afford to pay. We have no paywalls and no ads.
In the post-truth era of fake news, echo chambers and filter bubbles, we publish a plurality of perspectives from around the world. Anyone can publish with us, but everyone goes through a rigorous editorial process. So, you get fact-checked, well-reasoned content instead of noise.
We publish 2,500+ voices from 90+ countries. We also conduct education and training programs on subjects ranging from digital media and journalism to writing and critical thinking. This doesn’t come cheap. Servers, editors, trainers and web developers cost money.
Please consider supporting us on a regular basis as a recurring donor or a sustaining member.
Support Fair Observer
We rely on your support for our independence, diversity and quality.
Will you support FO’s journalism?
We rely on your support for our independence, diversity and quality.