Downturn In India-Canada Relations: Perils Of Diplomatic Impasse – Analysis

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The standoff in India-Canada relations seems to have escalated further, with India suspending visa services at its High Commission and Consulates in Canada and calling for a reduction in the number of Canadian diplomats in India.

A notification posted on the website of visa provider BLS International, which handles Indian visas in Canada, cited ‘operational reasons’ for the suspension, while the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) spokesperson in New Delhi stated that this move was made for security purposes. Canada already announced plans to ‘adjust’ its diplomatic staff presence in India due to threats received by its diplomats via social media. Simultaneously, the National Investigation Agency (NIA) released images of 10 individuals accused of involvement in the March 2023 attack on the Indian Consulate in San Francisco. The NIA has discreetly requested information from the public regarding these suspects.

Amid the escalating dispute between the two countries over Hardeep Singh Nijjar’s murder in June this year, MEA spokesperson Arindham Bagchi, in a media briefing, stated that Canada has not yet shared specific intelligence regarding the matter. He also remarked that if there are concerns about reputational issues, Canada should be the one to address them, especially regarding its growing reputation as a safe haven for terrorists. In response to the diplomatic tensions, the MEA emphasized Ottawa’s ‘interference in internal matters’ and called for parity in diplomatic staff numbers. During the media briefing, Arindam Bagchi pointed out that the number of Canadian diplomats in India significantly exceeds India’s diplomatic presence and cited instances of Canadian diplomatic interference in India’s internal affairs. He emphasized the need for a balance in rank and diplomatic strength between the two countries.

Meanwhile, MEA also notified that in light of the increasing incidents of anti-India activities, hate crimes, and criminal violence that are being politically condoned in Canada, all Indian nationals residing there and those planning to travel are strongly urged to exercise the utmost caution. There have been recent threats specifically targeting Indian diplomats and segments of the Indian community who oppose these anti-India actions. As a precautionary measure, Indian nationals are advised to refrain from travelling to regions and venues in Canada where such incidents have occurred. “Our High Commission and Consulates General will maintain ongoing communication with Canadian authorities to ensure the safety and well-being of the Indian community in Canada,” it said. 

Given the deteriorating security situation in Canada, Indian students, in particular, are advised to exercise extreme caution and remain vigilant. The advisory also emphasizes that Indian nationals and students from India in Canada should register with the High Commission of India in Ottawa or the Consulates General of India in Toronto and Vancouver through their respective websites or portals. This registration will enable the High Commission and Consulates General to establish better communication with Indian citizens in Canada in case of emergencies or unforeseen incidents.

In a separate development, Sukhdool Singh Gill, also known as Sukha Duneke, an alleged associate of the Bambiha gang, was fatally shot in Winnipeg, Canada, by unidentified assailants. Punjab police officials reported that Duneke had fled to Canada in 2017 and had been involved in running an extortion operation since then. Shortly after news of his death emerged, two rival Punjabi gangsters, Lawrence Bishnoi and Jaggu Bhagwanpuria, both claimed responsibility for the murder.  

Allegations and Tit-for-Tat Gameplay  

The bilateral conflict initially erupted earlier in the week when in a statement made in the Canadian Parliament on Monday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau asserted that Canadian authorities had been conducting an investigation into “credible allegations” of a possible connection between individuals affiliated with the government of India and the assassination of the Sikh Canadian citizen Hardeep Singh Nijjar in June on the Canadian soil. It may be noted that Trudeau did not say “creditable evidence.”  

Following Trudeau’s statement, Canada’s Foreign Affairs Minister Melanie Joly confirmed that Ottawa had expelled an Indian diplomat, whom she identified as the head of the Indian intelligence agency operating in the country, as a direct response to the situation. India also expelled a senior Canadian diplomat from the country in a reciprocal move.

In response to the statement made by the Canadian Prime Minister,  MEA categorically refuted any allegations of the Government of India’s involvement in acts of violence in Canada. The MEA dismissed these allegations as baseless and driven by ulterior motives. Similar accusations were levelled by the Canadian Prime Minister against India’s Prime Minister, and they were unequivocally rejected. The MEA underscored that these unfounded allegations are an attempt to divert attention from the presence of Khalistani terrorists and extremists who have found shelter in Canada and continue to pose a threat to India’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. The Indian government has long expressed concerns about the Canadian government’s inaction in this matter. The fact that some Canadian political figures openly sympathized with these elements was a matter of profound concern, according to New Delhi. 

The MEA further highlights that Canada has provided a conducive environment for various illegal activities, including murder, human trafficking, and organized crime, which is not a recent development. The MEA rejected any efforts to link the Government of India to these developments and urges Canada to promptly and effectively take legal action against all anti-India elements operating from its territory. 

The Khalistan Factor 

In 2020, the Indian government labelled Nijjar a ‘terrorist’ due to his leadership in the Khalistan movement, advocating for a Sikh state in Punjab. The movement, rooted in dissatisfaction with Sikh conditions in India, was active in the 1980s. Sikh preacher Bhindranwale emerged as a prominent leader, creating tension that led to ‘Operation Bluestar’ in 1984. Pakistan was also reportedly involved in supporting the movement. However, in October the same year, the Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her own security guards. It was followed by widespread anti-Sikh riots in Delhi, which took the lives of nearly 3000 Sikhs. The Khalistan movement remained dormant for long since the incidents. 

In 2020-21, farmer protests in Delhi, led by Sikhs from Punjab, reignited the Khalistan issue. India accused Canada of supporting Khalistani groups. The movement has a transnational dimension, with global Sikh support. Canada, the UK, and Australia have significant Sikh populations. Canada’s involvement in the 1985 Air India bombing heightened tensions.

India claims the Khalistan movement is active, especially in Canada, accusing Ottawa of harbouring extremists. Recent public referendums on Khalistan have upset New Delhi. This has strained India-Canada relations, with trade talks paused.  

Recent Downturn 

It may be noted that tensions between India and Canada have significantly intensified in recent times, as evidenced by the strained relationship during the recent G-20 summit held in New Delhi. What sets this apart is the unique and complex backdrop of Canada’s domestic landscape, particularly concerning its Sikh population. Canada is home to one of the largest Sikh populations globally, with nearly 770,000 Sikhs constituting about 2.1% of the country’s total population. This demographic factor has been a key element in the evolving Canada-India relationship. Tensions initially surfaced in 2015 when Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau appointed four Sikh ministers to his cabinet, a decision that raised eyebrows in India. This development was followed by concerns expressed by Indian diplomats regarding the political stance of some Sikh Canadians, particularly those who openly support the Khalistan movement. 

Incidents further heightened tensions. For instance, a Hindu temple in Canada was vandalized with graffiti reading ‘Death to India’ and ‘Khalistan. Sikh Canadians have also organized local referendums discussing Sikh independence from India.

A significant flashpoint occurred during Trudeau’s visit to India in 2018 when members of his delegation, including Sikhs, were found to have met with Jaspal Atwal, a Sikh who had been convicted of attempting to murder an Indian cabinet minister. This raised questions about Canada’s stance on issues concerning India’s internal affairs. However, these issues had somewhat receded as both countries sought to strengthen their relationship, particularly in response to shared concerns regarding China. Until recently, India-Canada relations had been relatively positive, marked by robust commercial ties and strategic cooperation in addressing shared concerns related to China’s influence in the region.

Trudeau’s government viewed India as a crucial partner under Canada’s Indo-Pacific strategy, driven by India’s growing economic and demographic significance in the region. As of May, there was optimism about the possibility of a trade agreement covering key sectors such as automobiles, agriculture, and information technology. 

The situation took a distressing turn in early June this year when India’s Minister of External Affairs, S. Jaishankar, expressed apprehension about Canada providing space for Sikh separatists. His remarks followed a controversial Khalistani separatist parade held in Ontario. Just ten days later, Sikh leader Hardeep Singh Nijjar was shot dead at a Sikh temple in Vancouver. This incident further strained relations between the two nations, marking a challenging and uncertain phase in their diplomatic ties.

The ongoing tensions between India and Canada, exacerbated by Canada’s suspension of trade negotiations, have broader implications for Canada’s global standing. These tensions coincide with increased Sikh activism not only in Canada but also in other countries, raising India’s concerns and prompting Canada to invoke freedom of speech. Leading up to the G-20 summit, Canada engaged in discreet discussions with allies to condemn the murder of a Sikh Canadian leader but avoided raising concerns with India’s Prime Minister during the summit. The US National Security Council expressed deep concern, posing a diplomatic challenge for the Biden Administration as it seeks to maintain India as a vital ally in countering China through its Indo-Pacific strategy.

Setback for Trade and Investment 

The worst pay-off from the ongoing India-Canada impasse is definitely in the areas of trade and investment. It may be noted that India and Canada held their sixth Ministerial Dialogue on Trade & Investment (MDTI) in Ottawa on May 8, 2023, emphasizing the Indo-Pacific region’s critical importance for Canada’s prosperity, security, and environmental initiatives. Canada’s Indo-Pacific Strategy was highlighted, with recognition of India’s significant role in the region. Despite challenges from the COVID-19 pandemic and the Ukraine conflict, bilateral trade between Canada and India in 2022 demonstrated resilience, with goods trade reaching nearly C$12 billion, a substantial 57% increase. Services trade also contributed significantly, totalling C$8.9 billion in 2022. Both countries celebrated the growth of two-way investments and their role in enhancing economic ties. 

Canada has become a significant investor in India, ranking as the 17th largest foreign investor with over $3.6 billion in investments since 2000. Canadian portfolio investors have also made substantial contributions to Indian stock and debt markets. 

Moreover, India has emerged as the primary source of international students in Canada since 2018. In 2022, the number of Indian students studying in Canada increased by 47%, totalling nearly 320,000 individuals, representing around 40% of all overseas students. This trend is supported by the Canadian Bureau for International Education, which collaborates with educational institutions to provide subsidized education for domestic students. 

In addition to economic and educational ties, Canada has experienced a significant growth in its Sikh population over the past two decades, driven by Sikhs from India seeking higher education and job opportunities. This influx has more than doubled the Sikh community’s share in Canada’s multicultural landscape.

Way Forward

Few will dispute the fact that the present stalemate is not good for both countries, given a range of opportunities for both countries in the emerging international landscape. Former Indian diplomat Ambassador KP Fabian has expressed concern over the diplomatic row between India and Canada. Fabian believes that Canada had a better choice; they could have told India discreetly if it had evidence on the murder. But Canada did not want to do it. Obviously, it escalated things. Then India had no choice. Fabian said, now that it has happened, the situation is likely to worsen before it improves. He has called for both countries to focus on de-escalation to prevent further deterioration of diplomatic relations. It is in the interest of both countries, he added. 

Karthik Nachiappan, a senior fellow at the Macdonald Laurier Institute and a research fellow at the Institute of South Asian Studies at the National University of Singapore, suggests that the Trudeau government’s baggage hampers relations with India and calls for a fresh approach through a change in government. He emphasizes resetting political relations and reducing diaspora group influence in Canadian foreign policy, not only for India but also for broader foreign policy objectives. Nachiappan highlights internationalizing the issue of foreign interference as Canada’s leverage but acknowledges that major Western allies, like the U.S. and U.K., have strong ties with India due to its role countering China. He urges Canada to reevaluate its India approach and acknowledge India’s growing strategic importance, especially in countering China globally. 

On the other hand, Ambassador Fabian said that it is not in the interest of India to project the Khalistan issue beyond a point as it might affect the country’s relations with Australia, Britain, United States, New Zealand etc wherever the Sikhs are in good number. He said it would be good if the two countries appoint special envoys to meet, without the glare of media, to work out a formula to be submitted before the two governments. This might facilitate de-escalation and a possible solution, he added. 

Amb Narinder Chauhan, former Indian ambassador and former Deputy High Commissioner to Canada (2008-2013) said that Canada and India share enduring bilateral relations founded on common values of democracy, pluralism, and strong interpersonal ties. Canada, as a member of the G7 and G20, boasts one of the largest Indian communities, with 4% of its population being of Indian descent. This Indian diaspora is also proportionally represented in the federal parliament. Consequently, whenever there have been strains in the relationship, effective statesmanship from both nations has historically facilitated their recovery he noted. 

Policy experts and former diplomats are largely in accord that the prevailing tensions in bilateral relations must not persist, given the evident economic and strategic fallout. Yet, the duration it will take for India and Canada to reconcile remains uncertain.

K.M. Seethi

K.M. Seethi is Director, Inter University Centre for Social Science Research and Extension (IUCSSRE), Mahatma Gandhi University, Kerala. He also served as Dean of Social Sciences and Professor of International Relations and Politics, Mahatma Gandhi University. He frequently writes for ‘Global South Colloquy.’ He can be contacted at [email protected]

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