India dispatch: India-Canada tensions over Sikh separatist killing cast a shadow over India’s relations with the West Dispatches
India dispatch: India-Canada tensions over Sikh separatist killing cast a shadow over India’s relations with the West

Indian law students are reporting for JURIST on law-related developments in and affecting India. This dispatch is from Nakul Rai Khurana, a law student at Jindal Global Law School.  

Last Thursday, September 21st, India formally designated Canada as an international refuge for terrorism, characterizing it as a “sanctuary harbouring terrorists, extremists, and organized criminal elements,” according to the spokesperson of the Ministry of External Affairs (‘MEA’). To further emphasize the gravity of the situation, the Ministry of External Affairs, on the 20th of September, also issued an advisory for the Indian nationals and students living in Canada. It asked concerned Indian nationals to stay vigilant and cautious due to rising “anti-India activity and hate crimes”, which are alleged by the MEA to be “politically condoned”.

How did the traditionally-amicable ties between the two nations reach this boiling point?

In a highly publicised and controversial address to the members of the Parliament on September 18, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau accused New Delhi’s agents of being involved in the murder of a Canadian citizen and alleged Sikh separatist leader Hardeep Singh Nijjar on Canadian soil. In his remarks, the Prime Minister mentioned “credible allegations” from a source that corroborates his claim of the Indian Government’s involvement in the assassination of the alleged Khalistan Tiger Force (‘KTF’) member. Trudeau further drew attention to his meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the G-20 summit held in Delhi where he first addressed his concerns of India’s involvement with extrajudicial activities on Canada’s sovereignty as part of its larger efforts to combat Khalistani separatism. He said that Canadian security agencies such as CSIS are involved in an active investigation deeming the alleged involvement to be “an unacceptable violation of our (Canadian) sovereignty”.

The KTF is a separatist militant organisation, one of many born out of the longstanding separatist movement demanding an independent, sovereign homeland for Indian Sikhs in the Northern regions of the country (primarily Punjab) called “Khalistan” (read more at JURIST). As of 2023, KTF has been designated a terrorist organization by the Government of India as part of larger efforts to quell or appease separatist movements within its borders and its historic zero-tolerance policy towards terrorism. The organization’s documented involvement in systematic killings in Punjab and challenges to India’s territorial integrity and sovereignty in the Punjab region has given it a notorious reputation.

PM Trudeau’s statements have brought long-standing and amicable ties between India and Canada to a historic low. The resulting diplomatic tug-of-war has made global headlines. In the wake of Trudeau’s remarks, the Canadian government expelled an Indian diplomat. In a short but rather strong response, the Ministry of External Affairs denied the allegations made by Prime Minister Trudeau and expelled a senior Canadian diplomat from New Delhi in a tit-for-tat move. The reciprocal move is likely to cause a domino effect with significant repercussions for the diplomatic ties between the two nations. In a further escalation of the diplomatic spat, India also suspended Visa services for all Canadian nationals seeking to travel to India.

“Such unsubstantiated allegations seek to shift the focus from Khalistani terrorists and extremists, who have been provided shelter in Canada and continue to threaten India’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. The inaction of the Canadian Government on this matter has been a long-standing and continuing concern.” This is an excerpt from the Ministry of External Affairs statement. It also highlights India’s dissatisfaction with Canada’s refusal to aid its campaign in fighting pro-Khalistan sentiments in the nation with a Sikh population of nearly 800,000.

The Indian Government has been in constant discord with the Khalistan protests. In March, the High Commissioner of Canada was summoned by India’s concerns after the Indian consulate in Vancouver was the target of a protest by pro-Khalistan protesters (read more at JURIST). Further protests have also been witnessed at Indian embassies across the world, particularly the United Kingdom. These demonstrations have been a constant encumbrance to Prime Minister Modi’s Hindu nationalist Government.

Earlier in 2020, Indo-Canadian relations were previously strained by Prime Minister Trudeau’s views on the Indian Farmers’ protests that year. The extent of his support was deemed “ill-informed” and the Indian Government was notably unhappy about Canada’s supposed “interference” in its internal issues. The diplomatic ties between the two nations have been limping on a slippery slope ever since and presently have reached a standstill.

Spokespersons from both the United States and the United Kingdom have expressed genuine concern over the allegations made by Prime Minister Trudeau and the gravity of his allegations. The development in respect of diplomatic relations has not been positive so far after India’s reciprocal move, for which it has not cited a genuine reason other than the one used by Canada, perhaps other than fear of interference with internal affairs.

The international refuge for terrorism designation made by the MEA warrants considerable scrutiny and underscores the imperative for caution in assessing Canada’s role in global counterterrorism efforts. Furthermore, the worsening of ties seems to be a reason for future Indian aspirants aiming to pursue a higher education in Canada to reconsider their choices, since the situation remains tense. People traveling to and from the two countries are likely to be the worst affected since both nations have halted visa issuances with immediate effect. India has, through its series of advisories and press releases, made its response to the Canadian allegations a massive diplomatic priority, a move that has led to a reconsideration of ties between the two nations, further dragging in Canada’s allies from the West. This situation casts a big question mark not only on the future of Indo-Canadian relations, but on India’s relations with the West as well.