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Business News/ News / India/  India-Canada ties in turmoil as rift grows

India-Canada ties in turmoil as rift grows

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s claim will further damage bilateral relations, which are already at an all-time low over the activities of pro-Khalistan elements in Canada

The development came a little more than a week after Prime Minister Narendra Modi told Trudeau at their meeting that New Delhi expects Ottawa to cooperate in tackling pro-Khalistani elements in Canada. (PTI)Premium
The development came a little more than a week after Prime Minister Narendra Modi told Trudeau at their meeting that New Delhi expects Ottawa to cooperate in tackling pro-Khalistani elements in Canada. (PTI)

NEW DELHI : Bilateral ties between India and Canada hang in the balance after India on Tuesday dismissed as “absurd and motivated" Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s claim of a “potential link" between Indian government agents and the killing of Khalistani leader Hardeep Singh Nijjar in June, and the two countries carried out tit-for-tat expulsions of senior diplomats.

Trudeau’s claim will further damage bilateral relations, which are already at an all-time low over the activities of pro-Khalistan elements in Canada, including holding a so-called referendum on a separate homeland for Sikhs, targeting of Indian diplomatic premises, and incitement of violence against top Indian officials.

The troubled bilateral ties have also affected negotiations on a free trade agreement, with officials from both sides saying the talks have been paused. Two-way trade in goods in 2022 was worth US$10.5 billion.

Graphic: Mint
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Graphic: Mint

On Monday, Trudeau told Canada’s House of Commons that the country’s security agencies “have been actively pursuing credible allegations of a potential link between agents of the Government of India and the killing of a Canadian citizen, Hardeep Singh Nijjar."

“The protection of our citizens and defence of our sovereignty are fundamental," he said.

Soon after Trudeau made the claim in Canada’s Parliament, foreign minister Mélanie Joly announced the expulsion of a “top Indian diplomat." Joly's office identified the diplomat as Pavan Kumar Rai, the head of India’s Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) in Canada, according to public broadcaster CBC. While it is not unusual for countries to expel operatives of a foreign intelligence agency, it is rare for them to identify the expelled official.

Hours later, Canadian envoy Cameron MacKay was summoned to the external affairs ministry and informed of the government’s decision to expel a senior Canadian diplomat. The diplomat was asked to leave within five days, the ministry said in a brief statement. The decision reflects the Indian government's “growing concern at the interference of Canadian diplomats in our internal matters and their involvement in anti-India activities", it added.

The statement didn’t name the Canadian diplomat, but people familiar with the matter said Olivier Sylvestere, the Canadian intelligence agency’s station chief in New Delhi, had been asked to leave the country.

The external affairs ministry said in a separate statement that Trudeau made similar allegations to Prime Minister Narendra Modi at a meeting on September 10, on the margins of the G20 Summit, and these “were completely rejected".

“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," the ministry said.

The development came a little more than a week after Modi told Trudeau at their meeting that New Delhi expects Ottawa to cooperate in tackling pro-Khalistani elements in Canada who are “promoting secessionism and inciting violence against Indian diplomats".

Nijjar, a Canadian citizen, was shot dead in the parking lot of Guru Nanak Sikh Gurdwara in the town of Surrey in British Columbia on June 18. Nijjar was earlier designated a terrorist by the Indian government for his involvement in pro-Khalistan activities.

“Any involvement of a foreign government in a killing of a Canadian citizen on Canadian soil is an unacceptable violation of our sovereignty," said Trudeau. He added that some Indo-Canadians are feeling “angry" and “perhaps frightened right now".

Canadians of Indian origin account for about 4% of the country’s population. The current House of Commons has 19 MPs of Indian origin, including three cabinet ministers. The opposition New Democratic Party, led by Jagmeet Singh, has helped keep Trudeau’s minority government in power. Singh, who has often spoken in favour of Khalistan, said on Tuesday he would ensure all links to Nijjar’s killing are pursued and justice is done.

Responding to the Canadian government’s allegations, the external affairs ministry rejected Trudeau’s statement in Parliament and Joly’s comments.

“Allegations of government of India's involvement in any act of violence in Canada are absurd and motivated," the ministry said in its statement. “We are a democratic polity with a strong commitment to rule of law."

The statement pointed out that “Canadian political figures have openly expressed sympathy for such elements" and this remains a deep concern for India. “The space given in Canada to a range of illegal activities including murders, human trafficking and organised crime, is not new," it added.

While rejecting attempts to connect the Indian government to such developments, the Indian side urged the Canadian government to take “prompt and effective legal action against all anti-India elements operating from their soil".

India’s sharp response underlines what’s at stake: its standing with key partners like the United States, Britain and Australia, whose leaders were briefed by Trudeau on the allegations. While the United States and Australia expressed their concern, neither country took a side. Comments have not been forthcoming from the United Kingdom and France.

Bilateral ties, especially on trade and defence, are likely to suffer from the fallout of this controversy. Canada recently requested a pause in talks for an Early Progress Trade Agreement with India, which Indian officials said was caused by political tensions. Canada’s Trade Minister also cancelled a planned visit to India. Two-way trade in goods in 2022 was worth US$10.5 billion, including Indian exports of US$6.4 billion, while bilateral trade in services in 2021 was worth US$5.88 billion. Canadian pension funds have invested more than US$55 billion in India.

“There is a sense that with Mr. Trudeau at the helm there is not much hope for much positive movement on the broader India-Canada relationship," said Harsh Pant, Vice-President for Studies and Foreign Policy. Pant argued that the tensions in the relationship is being hampered by India’s dislike of Trudeau and the Canadian’s Prime Minister’s lack of understanding of Indian sensitivities on issues like extremism.

“You have a decorum. You have a relationship and you maintain it. You go by the laid down principles. We are friendly countries, we are not enemies in that sense but he (Trudeau) makes it look like we are," said Vikram Sood, a former chief of the Research and Analysis Wing, India’s external intelligence agency in an interview to ANI.

Cooperation of defence and the Indo-Pacific is also likely to stall given the political tensions that now threaten to engulf the relationship. “India’s growing strategic, economic and demographic importance in the Indo-Pacific makes it a critical partner in Canada’s pursuit of its objectives under this strategy," reads Canada’s Indo-Pacific strategy. Canada was also looking to expand its defence presence in the Indo-Pacific and Mint reported in May that increased defence exercises were also being planned.

While addressing the Canadian media on the margins of the G20 Summit in New Delhi, Trudeau had said he had raised the issue of “foreign interference" in Canada’s internal affairs with his Indian counterpart.

Asked at the same news conference about India's concerns over the activities of pro-Khalistan elements, Trudeau said Canada will always defend freedom of peaceful protest but simultaneously asserted it will prevent violence.

A tersely worded readout issued by the external affairs ministry on the bilateral meeting on September 10 said that Modi had conveyed to Trudeau India's “strong concerns about continuing anti-India activities of extremist elements in Canada", who are “promoting secessionism and inciting violence against Indian diplomats, damaging diplomatic premises, and threatening the Indian community...and their places of worship".

Modi further said the “nexus of such forces with organised crime, drug syndicates and human trafficking should be a concern for Canada" and that it is “essential for the two countries to cooperate in dealing with such threats".

The people cited above said the external affairs minister is likely to make a statement on the matter during the ongoing special session of Parliament.

India-Canada relations are in tatters over the activities of pro-Khalistan elements on Canadian soil. In recent months, the extremist elements have organised pro-Khalistan rallies and protests in several cities and targeted Indian diplomatic facilities and officials. They have also held a so-called referendum on Khalistan in Surrey, Brampton and other cities with sizeable Sikh populations. One referendum was held on the same day that Modi met Trudeau in New Delhi.

The Indian side was particularly angered when a float at a recent rally depicted the assassination of former prime minister Indira Gandhi in a gory manner and eulogized her killers.

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Updated: 20 Sep 2023, 12:54 AM IST
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