The Diplomatic Impasse of Indo-Canadian Relations: A Moment to Retrospect

15 October, 2023

International Affairs


The June 18th killing of Hardeep Singh Nijjar in British Columbia unjumbled a seemingly forgotten past along with spurring a row between India and Canada that escalated into a serious diplomatic impasse. Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau projected serious allegations on Indian government agents’ suspected role in executing Nijjar’s assassination as a move to counter pro-Khalistan movements. India outrightly rejected the claim and raised concerns about Canada’s indifference towards the separatist movement on its soil despite several concerns. Diplomats from both sides were expelled further creating bilateral tensions along with sprouting stakes on both countries’ partners, particularly the United States.


Khalistan movement and Canada’s response

This issue primarily sheds light on the revitalisation of a long-simmering Khalistan movement and its unfettered operation in Canada. Nijjar was a Canadian separatist leader involved with the Khalistan movement, a movement that demanded a separate state for Sikhs, which has been condemned strongly by the Indian government since the country’s independence. The movement reached its zenith in the 1970s and 1980s leading to numerous acts of separation which the Indian government did not heed. This approach led to scores of riots between Hindus and Sikhs resulting in Operation Bluestar where the army stormed upon Sikh militants in the Golden Temple and then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s assassination.

Operation Bluestar had an intense reverberation in Canada in 1985, where the agitated Canada-based Sikh terrorists bombed an Air India flight from Montreal to New Delhi above Ireland, killing 329 people on boarding mostly comprising Indian Hindus as an act of retaliation against the Indian Government. This was a tumultuous period in the history of India and Canada, where the investigations yielded little significant progress.


India’s concerns on increasing separatism

India over three decades has been consistently complaining of nurturing Sikh separatists in Canadian land and the lack of recognition of the same. Throughout these years, there were no concrete efforts to evade separatist movements that got imported from India, unraveling certain factors pertaining to the country’s lackadaisical approach. For eg. India designated Nijjar as a terrorist under India’s terrorist act and repeatedly asked Canada to hand him over to India which did not occur. Moreover, his financial networks were not inquired adequately, showing Canada’s tacit interest in providing a safe space for separatist elements, with zero effect on Canada’s domestic interests.

Canada is home to the largest Sikh population outside India up to around 7.7 lakh which accounts for 2.1 percent of the Canadian population. This subsequently reveals the power held by the community in Canadian elections and how they function as a crucial vote bank, prompting Trudeau to appease them in possible ways. In the occasion of Indian diplomats facing threats, the occurrence of wider mobilisation of Sikh separatists, fundraising, and subsequent criminal activity, it becomes imperative for the Indian government to take necessary steps to counteract looming threats against the nation’s unity, but resorting it in the form of violent interference is not a permanent solution. It will only re-kindle the interreligious conflict that has been buried for a long, rather than delivering a peaceful solution acceptable to both parties.


Possible effects on international relations

On the flip side, if Canada is able to provide valid evidence of India’s involvement in Nijjar’s killing, it will be counted as a great violation of Canada’s sovereignty. It will also make India’s position in the international arena shaky, as this interference counts as an inappropriate activity from the part of a democracy that holds magnanimous power in South Asia in particular. It also puts both countries’ partners in a turbulent position as they would be unable to take sides publicly. It will be also counted as a serious threat to democracy posed by another democracy inviting no justifications. Most importantly United States will be in a tough spot due to two reasons: (i) the United States has been constantly building relations with India to pose it as a counterweight to China. It would be arduous for the United States to suddenly side with Canada by withdrawing from strengthening the India-US partnership. This would also pave the way for China’s effortless occupation of the global spectrum and Indo-Pacific which is unfavorable to the United States’ long-term interests in the region. (ii) The US shares vast boundaries with Canada and is a friendly neighbour with several common elements shared between them which makes it difficult for the US to completely turn a blind eye towards Ottawa’s concerns. Therefore, the current diplomatic tussle is capable of rewriting power politics and bilateral dynamics drastically, unless it is tamed immediately.


Way forward

Actions and resolutions should stem from both countries, Canada should identify, recognise, and charge people who are indulging in any illegal activity hinting towards Sikh separatism and India should provide full-fledged support for the investigation of Nijjar’s killing to unravel the truth.

Therefore negotiations should be put in place rather than escalating tensions over the issue. Canada being home to the world’s largest diaspora, should be cautious about the infiltration of separatist elements and its development which is detrimental to the other sovereign democratic country where these elements are banned or illegal. It should also understand the influx of diaspora populations with specific motives would make Canada vulnerable to the interference of foreign governments which at times become uncontrollable. A conducive environment for these separatist elements’ functioning would ultimately undermine the peace and stability of the host country itself along with straining bilateral relations which would be irreparable. Thus, importing exile politics is a case for further discussion and debate and Canada needs to find a proper solution as soon as possible.

Canada being the 18th largest foreign investor in India and a major trade partner, the current diplomatic row could debilitate trade ties, even though trade talks have been suspended indefinitely. Breaking off trade ties would be a naïve decision to adopt, particularly in the backdrop of global slowdown and the Russia-Ukraine war. India is the largest source of international students in Canada, which contributes to a major part of its economy. Therefore, in the backdrop of the current diplomatic row, Indian students will be reluctant to make Canada as their priority destination due to safety concerns and the future state of relations persuading Canada to search for other students in other countries. While diplomatic rifts strike every corner of bilateral relations between India and Canada, it is pertinent on the part of both governments to resolve this issue immediately through diplomatic talks and negotiations without allowing the issue to further escalate and deteriorate the fragile balancing act of West and India. Cooperation and restoring relations should be the priority along with securing and respecting each other’s sovereignty. Further, increasing diaspora populations should be managed and navigated effectively with close inspection of anti-government elements and exile politics ingrained in them. They should be targeted to the development and securing peace and stability of both sending and receiving countries. The first step from the part of Canada should be proving its allegations, meanwhile, New Delhi cooperating with every segment of the investigation. India’s grievances on Khalistan extremism should be taken seriously and Canada’s soft-peddling should be truncated. High-level engagements should be resumed to attain a pragmatic solution for the issue. Trade and tourism ties that have been temporarily severed due to visa restrictions should be revoked and restored to the previous format. Both countries are heavily dependent on each other in multiple segments, which makes it lame to intensify the fissures that occurred and is important to mend the ties. Leaving this dispute untouched is never an option; as it trembles the Indo-Pacific strategy, and provides a space for China to dominate.


The views expressed above belong to the author(s).