Treachery, Blame Put Frost on Indo-Canadian Relations

By Avinash Gavai, Correspondent

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s recent assertion in parliament regarding “credible allegations” implicating Indian intelligence in the murder of a Sikh activist in British Columbia has generated significant attention in India. This statement, for various reasons, was met with surprise and anger.
Firstly, Trudeau’s claim clashed with India’s national narrative, which typically portrays the country as a paragon of moral virtue, staunchly opposed to engaging in illicit activities on foreign soil. The suggestion that India might orchestrate such a heinous act contradicted the self-image India upholds.
More significantly, the notion that India could be behind an assassination on Western soil, a charge vehemently denied by India’s foreign ministry, marked a notable escalation in India’s covert operations against dissidents and supporters of separatism abroad. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, known for his commitment to reshape India’s traditionally non-confrontational approach to international affairs, declared his resolve in no uncertain terms. After a 2019 terrorist attack in Kashmir, he articulated a policy of taking aggressive action against extremists living abroad. This declaration was swiftly followed by an audacious air force raid into Pakistani territory, which garnered widespread acclaim and was credited with Modi’s party’s electoral success.
Trudeau’s statement triggered a diverse response on Indian right-wing social media, where public sentiment often foreshadows official narratives. Some embraced the idea of India’s involvement, viewing it as a testament to the nation’s growing power, while others vehemently rejected the allegations, branding Trudeau as dishonest. Some vacillated between these viewpoints.
Within India, some advocated for an Israel-like strategic ambiguity, hoping to maintain international suspicion regarding India’s involvement without concrete evidence. However, this approach may backfire, leading to a perception of guilt rather than plausible deniability.
The situation represents a diplomatic and intelligence failure. While the victim, Hardeep Singh Nijjar, was far from a saintly figure, a more discreet approach should have been adopted once Canadian officials raised the issue privately.
The meeting between Trudeau and Modi at the G-20 summit in New Delhi only exacerbated the situation. Trudeau personally conveyed the allegations to Modi, and soon after the official Indian readout accused Canada of supporting religious militancy and organized crime. Many aspects of the case remain shrouded in mystery, and the official Indian perspective argues that Canada harbors Sikh separatist sympathizers who have influenced the murder investigation.
The Hindustan Times recently reported that India’s dossier, submitted to Ottawa and Washington, contains extensive documentation spanning multiple pages. It includes ten charges filed against what it states is a terrorist responsible for contract killings targeting Indian citizens. Nijjar began as a plumber in Surrey but later aligned himself with radical elements, eventually becoming the president of Guru Nanak Sikh Gurudwara. This religious institution openly exhibits images of Khalistan terrorists from past decades, including Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale. Nijjar was also affiliated with the banned organization, Babbar Khalsa International, and later joined the Khalistan Tiger Force (KTF). Subsequently, he traveled to Pakistan in 2013 and 2014, engaging in meetings with ISI officials to bolster the KTF and orchestrate acts of terrorism in the Indian state of Punjab. The dossier states that his involvement encompassed activities such as identification, networking, training, financing, and operationalizing KTF module members. In other words, India viewed him as a major national security threat.
The United States reportedly shared intelligence with Canada, aiding in implicating India. Intercepted communications among Indian diplomats in Canada hinted at their involvement, according to Canadian officials, without getting into further details.
If the investigation yields enough evidence of state-sponsored involvement, it would signal a significant shift in India’s approach to overseas extremism. Historically, India has targeted militants in exile in Pakistan but refrained from actions against the broader diaspora, even during periods of strained relations with Western countries.
The priority now lies in conducting a transparent investigation in Canada, with proactive cooperation from the Indian government. So far, Canada has not shared any evidence with India.
The United States for its part now faces a crucial decision, needing to balance its alliance commitments with its partnership with India, a bulwark against a growing Chinese threat. It would definitely calculate that its partnership with India is more consequential in the long term than some of its obligations to Canada.
Other recent developments in Canada have raised questions about Trudeau’s credibility on the global stage.
The leader of Canada’s opposition this week criticized the prime minister for honoring a veteran who fought alongside the Nazis during World War II. A major controversy erupted after Yaroslav Hunka, a 98-year-old Ukrainian immigrant, was recognised as a war hero in Canada’s House of Commons during a visit by President Volodymyr Zelensky.
A former Indian ambassador to Canada humorously questioned “whether this act was also based on credible intelligence.”