The Indo-Canadian standoff over the killing of Sikh separatist Hardeep Singh Nijjar is symptomatic of a widening gulf between India and the Western bloc with implications for geopolitics.
The tit-for-tat expulsions of senior diplomats by Canada and India on the issue of the murder of the Canada-based Khalistani separatist Hardeep Singh Nijjar are unlikely to be a one-off incident in Indo-Canadian relations.
The expulsions are symptomatic of a widening gulf between India and the Western bloc as a whole, a gulf that will have serious implications for geopolitics.
The Canadian Foreign Minister, Mélanie Joly, was quoted by Canadian newspaper Goble and Mail on Tuesday as saying that she had expelled Pavan Kumar Rai, the senior-most member in Canada of India’s intelligence agency Research and Analysis Wing (RAW).
India, however, has not yet stated which Canadian diplomat it has expelled.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told MPs that his government had “declared its deep concerns to the top intelligence and security officials of the Indian government” and urged New Delhi to work with Canada to “get to the bottom of this matter.”
“I also expect it (New Delhi) to reiterate that its position on extra-judicial operations in another country is contrary to the fundamental rules by which free, open and democratic societies conduct themselves,” Trudeau added.
Nijjar, a Canadian Sikh, was killed allegedly by Indian agents on Canadian soil, raising the twin issues of Canadian sovereignty and foreign interference in Canada.
Later on Tuesday, Trudeau tried to tone down his diatribe by saying that he was “not looking to provoke or escalate. We want to work with the government of India to lay everything clear and to ensure there are proper processes.”
But this is unlikely to mollify India which has deep grievances against Canada for its long-standing tolerance and even subtle encouragement of Khalistani separatism on its soil.
West Gangs Up Against India
On the Nijjjar issues India cannot expect any palliative or help from its “strategic ally” the US to contain Canada. President Biden had made inquiries from Modi about the human rights situation in India on the side lines of the G20 summit.
After Canada’s action on the Nijjar issue, the White House fired a salvo against India. Late on Monday, the White House’s National Security Council spokesperson Adrienne Watson said: “We are deeply concerned about the allegations referenced by Prime Minister Trudeau earlier today. We remain in regular contact with our Canadian partners. It is critical that Canada’s investigations proceed and the perpetrators be brought to justice.”
A spokesperson for Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong said that Canberra was “deeply concerned” by the allegations that Canada has labelled against India.
“Australia believes all countries should respect sovereignty and the rule of law. We are closely engaged with partners on developments. We have conveyed our concerns at senior levels to India,” the spokesperson said.
The UK has also said that it is in “close touch” with Ottawa about the “serious allegations”.
India also cannot expect to draw succour from political cleavages in Canada because the opposition Conservative party Leader, Pierre Poilievre, said that “India must account for its conduct”.
The leader of the Sikhs and Khalistan sympathiser Jagmeet Singh of the New Democratic Party said that Canada and its allies must send a “strong signal to India.”
The Canada-India talks on economic issues fixed for October in Mumbai, have been put on hold at Canada’s instance. Withdrawal of the Indian High Commissioner cannot be ruled out if the issues is not nipped in the bud as the charge of “foreign interference” in a Western country has put India in the bracket of “known offenders” Russia and China. India strongly feels that its legitimate case vis-à-vis terrorists and separatists based abroad is not being heard at all.
The government of India responded to the allegations on Monday night, denying any involvement in the Nijjar slaying.
“Allegations of government of India’s involvement in any act of violence in Canada are absurd and motivated,” India’s Ministry of External Affairs said in a statement posted on its website.
The statement also said Prime Minister Narendra Modi had dismissed these accusations when they were raised with him by Trudeau on the sidelines of the G20 summit in New Delhi.
“Similar allegations were made by the Canadian Prime Minister to our Prime Minister, and were completely rejected,” the Indian Foreign Ministry said.
It said that Canada has for too long given a safe haven to extremists.
“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 Indian government said.
“The inaction of the Canadian government on this matter has been a long-standing and continuing concern.”
New Delhi urged Canada “to take prompt and effective legal action against all anti-India elements operating from their soil.”
The killing of Nijjar and a couple of other Sikh extremists in the past is only a particular manifestation of the growing rift between the US-led Western alliance and India. The two sides view the emerging world order from different perspectives, though both routinely parrot lines about being wedded to democracy in opposition to authoritarianism and campaigning for a free and open Indo-Pacific.
The West wants India to join its fight against Russia in support of Ukraine and is eager to rope in India in an Indo-Pacific military alliance against China. But India is neither willing to criticise Russia nor take China head-on, even on the Sino-India border issue, where China is clearly the aggressor.
India has a long and productive history of military and economic cooperation with the USSR/Russia. As regards China, along with measures to boost its defences on the Sino-Indian border, India is also aiming to settle the border issue diplomatically rather than militarily.
The US and its allies are disappointed that, despite being their “strategic partner”, India is not doing their bidding on key trade and strategic issues. India has not only taken an independent path but is triumphantly parading it to the annoyance of the West.
In the context of this conflict, the West is taking up issues that show India in poor light. The Modi government’s human rights violations, its attacks on Muslims and the steps it has taken to undermine India’s diversity and traditional spirit of tolerance are being highlighted and condemned by the Western media consistently. The US State Department has done so in its reports on human rights.
But the powers-that-be in New Delhi and the right-wing nationalists who support the regime, find Western criticisms intolerable. Anti-West sentiments hipped up through the media. The government raids the West’s businesses and media institutions.
Issues in Indian Diaspora
Meanwhile, with Indians becoming a larger and larger community in the US, Canada, UK and Australia, their cultures, thoughts and issues flowed into the host countries. The Khalistan issue, Hindu-Muslim conflicts, and issues of caste (Dalit) discrimination have come to the forefront in these countries.
These issues embarrass India, as its claim to be secular, equalitarian and democratic, is brought into serious question.
The Western democracies’ strict adherence to freedom of peaceful expression, however gross they may be, is not appreciated in India, especially by regimes which have branded themselves as “nationalist” such as the current one.
Indian nationalism is not only directed at Pakistan and China but also against the White Western democracies which are still seen as imperialist and White supremacist. The Indian Right and Left are united on this issue. The Western bloc will have to contend with this phenomenon in its dealings with India.
In the coming years, India’s domestic and foreign policy postures will run counter to the West’s values and interests. Therefore, the on-going Indo-Canadian standoff is likely to continue in one form or another for an indefinite period.
That will put in question the future of QUAD. The future of the Indo-Pacific alliance being put together by the US against China hangs in the balance.
This article was published in Counterpoint