Anchal Vohra is a writer for Foreign Policy magazine who is currently based in Brussels. She focuses on topics related to Europe, the Middle East, and the Indo-Pacific.
Ever since Narendra Modi became the Indian Prime Minister, Western democracies have chosen to remain quiet about the country’s decline in democracy. This is primarily to maintain a good relationship with India in the face of China’s growing influence, but also to secure trade agreements and tap into India’s markets.
But, the extended leash granted to Modi could potentially break due to Canada’s recent allegations that India was responsible for a deliberate murder on Canadian territory.
The previous week, shortly after attending the G20 conference in New Delhi, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau stated in parliament that Indian officials may have been involved in the murder of Canadian citizen Hardeep Singh Nijjar. Nijjar, a leader of the Sikh separatist movement, was fatally shot by unidentified gunmen on June 18.
The killing was described as a breach of the nation’s sovereignty, which is deemed unacceptable. According to Canada, India has acted in an unpredictable and unauthorized manner.
As anticipated, New Delhi has refuted any role in the matter, labeling Trudeau’s claims as unfounded and biased. The Indian Ministry of Foreign Affairs portrays this as an effort to divert attention from Canada’s lack of action against “Khalistani terrorists and extremists” – a group advocating for an independent state for Sikh people in India.
Sikh individuals advocating for separation have taken refuge in Canada since the 1980s, following the Indian government’s suppression of the movement and its leaders.
In 1984, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi authorized Operation Blue Star, resulting in the death of the leader of a group who had taken refuge in the most sacred Sikh temple. Tragically, she was later assassinated by her own Sikh bodyguards. The following year, a flight operated by Air India exploded while flying from Montreal, causing the death of all 329 people on board. Some of the Sikh separatists who had sought refuge in Canada were suspected of being responsible for the attack.
Although there is currently very little support for the idea of Khalistan among the Sikh population in Punjab, the diaspora community has remained committed to the cause and has made efforts to reignite the movement. Before his death, Nijjar was working towards a non-binding referendum to gauge support for an independent Sikh state.
Is it justified for the Indian government to order an assassination in a friendly nation due to their concerns about Sikh separatists in Canada?
The responsibility to provide evidence falls on Trudeau, who did not receive the anticipated support from his Western allies during the initial two days.
The United States showed worry but adjusted their response, urging both Canada and India to uncover all details without placing blame on New Delhi. The United Kingdom, where there is a significant Sikh community, stated that they did not want to mix ongoing trade negotiations with other matters. Australia, which has a population of over 200,000 Sikhs, also showed restraint and expressed deep concern.
Indian journalists who support the government have praised the country’s display of restraint, viewing it as a show of solidarity for the state. This has left Canadian journalists confused, as they may have anticipated more from Canada’s allies, particularly since Canada is a part of the Five Eyes intelligence alliance with the U.S., Britain, Australia, and New Zealand.
Nevertheless, Trudeau’s remarks sparked speculation about his lack of solid evidence, as he mentioned that Canadian security agencies were actively investigating “credible allegations” rather than concrete evidence of a potential connection between Indian agents and the murder.
There is a valid point to be made that Trudeau’s decision to publicly announce and suspend trade discussions with one of the world’s most rapidly growing economies may not have been necessary. However, it is possible that the decision was forced upon him as a Canadian newspaper was about to break the story and he wanted to proactively address it.
As pressure mounted for Trudeau to provide further explanation, the United States felt the need to take a stance. On Saturday, U.S. Ambassador to Canada David Cohen stated on a Canadian TV channel that the accusation made by Trudeau was based on intelligence shared among the Five Eyes partners, implying that there could be concrete evidence supporting it.
If there is evidence and it is presented in a public setting, like a court, the prosecution would need to disclose its origin. This could potentially harm India’s relationships with all Five Eyes countries, including its main ally, the United States.
If Canada’s allegations are confirmed, it could alter the situation significantly and prompt leaders in the Western world to condemn the actions of the Indian government. According to political analyst Scott Reid, as reported by CTV, “It is not acceptable to travel to another country and harm its citizens. This is not something that happens in a James Bond movie.”
That isn’t how the situation appears in India, however, where Canada’s allegations seem to be helping Modi and his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Ask Modi’s supporters, and they think Bond and Smiley are all novices compared to Ajit Doval — India’s national security adviser and the second-most powerful person in the country.
Before Trudeau made his accusations, Hindu nationalists were praising Doval for defeating the “Khalistani” leaders. One tweet stated, “The dismantling of Khalistan has started. Do not challenge Ajit Doval.” Another tweet echoed Doval’s message, stating, “If you are anti-India and support terrorism, we will take action against you.”
However, despite the open display of patriotism by certain followers of Modi, there exists a strong feeling of being victimized among Indians who have always believed that their governments were not assertive enough to put a stop to terrorist attacks, which frequently originate from Pakistan. The 2008 Mumbai attack has left a lasting impact on the nation’s mentality, and in the past, Modi has promised to take a tough stance against terrorists.
During the late 1990s, India, led by Prime Minister Inder Kumar Gujral, had discontinued or restricted its secret operations. However, under Modi’s leadership, there has been a renewed emphasis on security. He has allocated more resources to the country’s intelligence agency, the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), and has permitted increased collaboration with Mossad. As a result, there have been an increase in reports from unidentified security officials on Indian TV about the agencies’ efforts in “eliminating terrorists,” as well as more coverage on the courage and achievements of India’s spies.
Prior to Nijjar, two other Sikh separatists were also recently discovered deceased in suspicious circumstances – one in Pakistan and the other in the United Kingdom. Paramjit Singh Panjwar was fatally shot in Lahore in early May, while Avtar Singh Khanda passed away in a Birmingham hospital just days before Nijjar’s death. While Khanda’s family claims he died from cancer, his supporters believe he was poisoned. In the meantime, the pro-Indian government website TFI has implied a possible connection between these killings and the Indian intelligence agency RAW.
However, Ajai Sahni, the head of the Institute for Conflict Management in Delhi, stated that he doubts India has the ability or willingness to conduct such assassinations outside of their own country. Sahni, who is knowledgeable about the Sikh rebellion, considers Trudeau’s claims to be reckless and suggests that the murder may be connected to a conflict within the Sikh separatist group.
He stated that “both nations are heading towards crucial national elections.” This is advantageous for Modi in one country and Trudeau in the other.