There was much celebration in India last year when the country marked its 75th year of independence from Britain as it overtook its former colonial overlord to become the world’s fifth-largest economy. But another symbolic turning point may have been reached with the decidedly equivocal reaction of Canada’s closest allies when Justin Trudeau accused India of assassinating a Sikh separatist in a Vancouver suburb in June.
Hardeep Singh Nijjar was a plumber who had been living in Canada for more than 20 years when he was shot dead in the car park of his gurdwara, or Sikh temple, by two masked men, suspected to be agents of India’s foreign intelligence agency, the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW). To his community in Surrey, British Columbia, he was a peaceful ‘role model’, who had advocated for a ‘separate Sikh state of Khalistan through a democratic process of referendum’. But to the Indian government, he was a terrorist and leader of the Khalistan Tiger Force, who Delhi alleged had conspired to kill a Hindu priest in Punjab last year.
Nijjar was wanted by police in India over a 2007 cinema bombing in Punjab that killed six people and the 2009 assassination of Rulda Singh, an Indian politician who led a Sikh adjunct of the RSS, a Hindu nationalist group affiliated to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party that counts the Indian prime minister, Narendra Modi, as a member. A $1.2m reward was put on Nijjar’s head last year, as well as on other Sikhs linked by India to Babbar Khalsa (BKI), a militant organisation active in Punjab.
Khalistan (‘land of the pure’) was seen as a mirror image of Pakistan in the build-up to the partition of India in 1947, but the secessionist movement reached its apogee after the attack on the Golden Temple in Amritsar ordered by Indira Gandhi in 1984. The ensuing bloodshed, in which hundreds died in this most holy of sites, led to the Indian prime minister’s assassination by her Sikh bodyguards, which in turn spurred the massacre of at least 8,000 Sikhs across the country. While Sikh separatism has waned in India since the 1990s, Khalistan separatism’s most vocal and militant advocates emerged among the Punjabi diaspora.
How Leicester’s sectarian clashes became another Hindutva battlefield
Canada in the 21st century: beyond dominion and middle power
On 18 June, Trudeau told Canadian MPs there was ‘credible’ information linking Modi’s government to the killing – apparently from tapped calls made by an Indian diplomat intercepted by the ‘Five Eyes’ intelligence alliance (Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the UK and the US). The prime minister said he had brought up the allegations with Modi ‘many weeks ago’. Ottawa suspended talks on an Indian-Canadian trade deal earlier in the month.
India reacted furiously, with Trudeau snubbed by Modi at the G20 summit in Delhi the previous week. There were tit-for-tat expulsions of each country’s intelligence chiefs. Delhi called the accusations ‘absurd’, though it later said it was ‘willing to look at any specific information’. The Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) said it had ‘growing concern at the interference of Canadian diplomats in our internal matters and … anti-India activities’. It suspended visas for Canadians, claiming diplomatic staff faced ‘security threats’.
In descriptions of the country that would bemuse most Canadians, the MEA also warned its citizens there about ‘growing anti-India activities and politically condoned hate crimes’. The Indian external affairs minister, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, highlighted the ‘organised crime, related to secessionist forces, violence and extremism’ in Canada. (This might have been a hyperbolic reference to the swelling voice of Sikh activists overcoming a ‘fear of speaking out a little too much’, as Mukhbir Singh, of the World Sikh Organisation, put it.) Even an Indian opposition politician seemed more concerned with the way the accusation had been levelled than the act itself: ‘Going public … was very unfortunate,’ said the Congress MP Shashi Tharoor, adding that such matters should be ‘discussed privately with a friendly government like India’.
The allegations ‘revived long-simmering tensions within Canada’s Indian diaspora’, the New York Times said. But Trudeau was hailed in Punjab for standing up to the Indian government. Nijjar’s apparent assassination followed the murder of Ripudaman Singh Malik, another prominent Sikh, in Surrey last year (Malik was acquitted in 2005 over the bombing of an Air India flight from Montreal to Mumbai that killed 329 people in 1985).
Sikh activists from elsewhere have also been targeted. Jagtar Singh Johal, a Scottish-born Sikh, was detained in 2017 while in Punjab for his wedding, accused of ‘influencing the youth through social media’. The UK might well be playing both sides. The human rights group Reprieve said it had compelling evidence that Johal’s arrest in India followed a tip-off from British security agencies. Another high-profile UK-based Sikh separatist, Avtar Singh Khanda, died suddenly from cancer aged 35 in June, amid claims that he had been poisoned by India. Two known Khalistani militants were assassinated in Lahore, Pakistan, in January and May, with Indian involvement suspected: Harmeet Singh, who was accused of murders in India and of training Khalistani militants, and Paramjit Singh Panjwa.
While the Canadian government would usually expect its western allies to support it as it called out an ostensible ally for such an aggressive act on its territory, Trudeau found himself surprisingly isolated, with no outright support. The US secretary of state, Antony Blinken, merely called on India to cooperate with Canada and ensure ‘accountability’ over the killing. The Economist suggested: ‘Many in India believe the Americans have hung Mr Trudeau out to dry.’
Find out more about the Commonwealth Round Table and the Round Table Journal
However, the US apparently provided Trudeau with the information about Delhi’s role in the killing. Furthermore, the FBI warned several prominent Sikh Americans that they were in danger after Nijjar was murdered. But Washington faces a dilemma: while it has supported its northern neighbour so far, if it goes public with the intelligence, it may jeopardise its efforts to bring India onboard as a political, military and economic partner in its strategy of counteracting China’s growing influence.
However, while the world’s most populous country has become the west’s key ally in Asia, the Economist suggested India had ‘probably underestimated the strength of Western solidarity. It viewed Canada as a second-order power [and] appears to assume America will not rupture its strategic commitment to India.’ That may be the case but there is a limit to how much free rein Delhi can expect when it comes to assassinating troublesome dissidents in foreign countries.
There was an equally muted and ambivalent reaction from Canada’s closest Commonwealth allies. A British government spokesperson merely said: ‘We are in close touch with our Canadian partners about these serious allegations. It would be inappropriate to comment further during the ongoing investigation by the Canadian authorities.’ A spokesperson for Australia’s foreign minister, Penny Wong, said she was ‘deeply concerned by these allegations and notes ongoing investigations into this matter’.
As the might of China appears to grow inexorably, India has become the Asian counterweight that no western state can afford to alienate. In April, India asked Britain to monitor UK-based Sikh separatists after protesters carrying ‘Khalistan’ banners detached the Indian flag from outside the high commission in London. The brother of one Sikh activist arrested in India in 2017 said: ‘It seems like the UK government cares more about getting a trade deal with India than it does about its citizens.’ Trudeau is in a difficult position himself: India was Canada’s 10th biggest trade partner last year, with business worth $13.7bn. In 2021, 90,000 Indian tourists spent $3.4bn, the most of any group, while of 800,000 foreign students in Canada last year, 40% were from India.
For all its public protestations, few seem to doubt that India dispatched secret agents to kill a Canadian on Canadian soil. If the Commonwealth means anything in this post-colonial age, it is at the very least that you do not assassinate each other’s citizens. As Bruno Maçães, Portugal’s former Europe minister, said in the New Statesman: ‘To accept that our partners directly act against us and in the same determinate manner that the Kremlin acts against us is a form of political madness. Or geopolitical desperation.’
The Commonwealth Charter cites core principles such as mutual respect, transparency, accountability and legitimacy, and calls on members to observe international law and combat terrorism. Such laudable aspirations seem a far cry from India’s newly aggressive stance on the world stage. The Modi government may well relish the ambiguity over RAW’s role in the death of Sikh separatists living abroad; with this cynical killing, it has made it clear that Vladimir Putin’s Russia, rather than India’s Commonwealth allies, will be the role model from now on.
Oren Gruenbaum is a member of the Round Table editorial board.