The circumstances surrounding the mysterious killing of Hardeep Singh Nijjar have sent India-Canada relations plummeting to a new low.
"Allegations of the Government of India's involvement in any act of violence in Canada are absurd and motivated. Similar allegations were made by the Canadian Prime Minister to our Prime Minister, and were completely rejected. We are a democratic polity with a strong commitment to rule of law," said the Union Ministry of External Affairs (MEA).
The statement was in response to Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s statement where he said that "Canadian security agencies have been actively pursuing credible allegations of a potential link between agents of the government of India and Nijjar killing."
Trudeau also said that he had even raised the issue with Prime Minister Narendra Modi during the G20 summit hosted in New Delhi.
Following the accusations, Canada expelled a senior Indian diplomat, in response to which India summoned the Canadian High Commissioner and expelled Canada’s station chief for intelligence.
The situation has worsened to the extent that the MEA has issued an advisory for Indian nationals and Indian students in Canada. “In view of growing anti-India activities and politically condoned hate crimes and criminal violence in Canada, all Indian nationals there and those contemplating travel are urged to exercise utmost caution,” read the advisory.
The MEA has made it mandatory for Indian nationals and students from India in Canada to register with the High Commission of India in Ottawa or the Consulates General of India in Toronto and Vancouver.
NATO and Five Eyes
The allegations made by the Canadian Prime Minister are quite serious in nature, and if the allegations lack substance in the future, they will definitely worsen the ties between India and Canada.
While India has accused Canadian diplomats of “anti-India” activities, Canada has accused India of violating international rule of law and interfering with Canadian “sovereignty”. This might open up new fronts with respect to the confrontation in the coming days.
It is the need of the hour that the ‘outspoken’ Indian leaders, for whom name-calling Pakistan is a routine task, should understand that Canada is a part of the NATO alliance (North Atlantic Treaty Organization), and for Indians and Indian-origin Canadians who call Canada home, the impact would wider and longer.
This is also evident from the support that Trudeau has received from its opposition in the Canadian Parliament. The US and Australia, Canada's partners in the ‘Five Eyes’ intelligence-sharing agreement, have also expressed “deep concerns” over the killing of a Canadian citizen, allegedly by “Indian agents” in Canada.
It is a tightrope walk for diplomats of both countries.
If Trudeau is able to prove the allegations publicly, it will be a blunder for India as it will embolden Sikhs sympathetic to the Khalistan cause.
Conversely, if Trudeau fails to do so, it will further embolden the right wing and will aggravate the Hindu-Sikh divide.
The Sikh Vote Bank in Canada
Canada has offered a great advantage of congenial, legal, and political environment to Khalistani radicals.
In 1982, it was Pierre Trudeau’s government that refused Indira Gandhi’s government request to extradite Talwinder Singh Parmar, the Khalistani militant accused of mastermind-ing the Air India bombing that killed 329 people.
Canadian diplomats told their Indian counterparts that extradition protocols between the Commonwealth countries did not apply to India as it only recognised Her Majesty (Queen Elizabeth II) as head of the Commonwealth and not as the head of State.
Seeking evidence from history, it can be safely said that Canadian politicians avoid risking their Sikh vote bank by addressing the issue of Sikh extremists as raised by India.
In 2002, a Toronto weekly, Sanjh Savera, greeted the murderers of Indira Gandhi with a headline urging readers to “Honour the martyrs who killed the sinner.” The explicit endorsement of political murder did not produce any complaints from Canadian politicians and instead, the weekly continued to thrive on government advertising.
India and Indians often accuse Canadian politicians of pandering to Sikh extremists. The simple reason lies in the fact that a country where millions of Sikhs throng the streets on Vaisakhi Day, politicians know that siding with India on the issue of Sikh extremism will risk their votes.
The strategic silence of the Canadian political class has made the country a safer haven for Khalistani radicals, so much so that they have normalised the celebration of even the perpetrators of political murders.
The Sentiment in Punjab
Generally speaking, on any given day, a conflict-ridden society will trust the third party more than their ‘oppressor’.
That is the case with Punjab.
Be it the historic agitation against the three farm laws and the demonisation of Sikhs at the time, or their portrayal as Khalistani sympathisers, or the death of hundreds of farmers in the course of agitation, or the dramatic episode of Khalistani radical Amritpal Singh, or the suspicious death of Khalistani extremists on foreign soil that has caused the present turmoil – all these events have culminated in an uneasy relationship between the Sikhs and the Indian State.
The statement by Trudeau establishes the confirmation bias among the Sikhs in India. Though it is not publicly said, it would not be surprising for the average Sikh to believe in the ‘role of Indian agencies' in the suspicious deaths of Khalistani extremists abroad. Even before his death, Nijjar had pointed out that he was on the hit list of multiple agencies.
Even an average Sikh in Punjab never accepts the narratives or perceptions as floated by the Indian state. They doubt, they question.
Shiromani Gurudwara Prabandhak Committee (SGPC) President Harjinder Singh Dhami has urged both the governments of India and Canada to adopt an agenda of serious consideration instead of hurling accusations.
Dhami reminded me of the 1984 military attack on Sri Harmandir Sahib and Akal Takht Sahib, the anti-Sikh riots that followed, and the extra-judicial killings of Sikh youths for a decade, and that “the Sikhs always have to struggle for their rights.”
The press release of the SGPC did not mention Hardeep Singh Nijjar as a militant or a Khalistani extremist as maintained by the Indian government. It was actually worded as “the murder case of Canada-based Sikh Hardeep Singh Nijjar.”
The anguish shared by the SGPC, the top religious body of Sikhs in Punjab, is felt by the majority of Sikhs in the state as well as worldwide.
A significant number of Sikhs living in various countries have been deprived of coming back to their homeland and of paying obeisance at the sacred shrines of their gurus (religious masters), a very sensitive issue as touched upon by the SGPC in their statement.
What should be doubly concerning is the internal provocations coming from mostly the mainstream media and the right wing that will only deepen the Hindu-Sikh divide – which shall not be healthy for Indian democracy.
(Rohin Kumar is an author and independent journalist writing about humanitarian crises. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed above are the authors' own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)