Mint Explainer: Trudeau’s India policy - from trusted friend to strained ties

Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. (Reuters)
Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. (Reuters)


  • Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s allegations that India was involved in the killing of a pro-Khalistan leader in Canada have strained bilateral relationship

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s allegations that India was involved in the killing of a pro-Khalistan leader in Canada have strained the bilateral relationship. Trudeau, who had once termed India as a “trusted friend", has now become the focus of much public anger in India. Mint takes a look at what went wrong.

The origins of Trudeau’s India policy

Trudeau assumed office after a landslied victory in 2015. He inherited a strong relationship with India, thanks in part to the efforts of his predecessor, Stephen Harper. India and Canada concluded a landmark nuclear cooperation agreement during Prime Minister Narendra Modi's visit to Canada in 2015. During the 2015 election, Trudeau’s Liberal Party called for closer trade ties with India in its election manifesto.

What happened after his election?

For some time, there was concern that Trudeau’s government was less serious about taking ties with India forward. Then high commissioner to India Nadir Patel had to dismiss concerns that the relationship was adrift. It was also thought that talks on a trade deal, which had begun under Harper’s government in 2010, were in trouble. However, Trudeau made a high-profile visit to India in 2018. He announced an expansion in cooperation on counter-terrorism, energy and bilateral investments. However, the trip was marred by a number of occurrences. Canada’s public spat with senior politician Captain Amrinder Singh, and Trudeau’s refusal to meet him, drew flak. Jaspal Atwal, an extremist convicted for attempting to kill an Indian cabinet minister in 1986, was invited to a dinner at the Canadian high commission during Trudeau’s visit. This caused outrage in India and the invitation to Atwal was hastily withdrawn.

Did that hurt ties significantly?

In the years since, both sides have stepped up cooperation in some fields. Trade volumes grew and free trade agreement talks picked up pace. India featured prominently in Canada’s Indo-Pacific policy and both sides also spoke of stepping up defence ties. However, political tensions also grew. Trudeau’s comments on the farm law agitations in India in 2020 drew criticism from the Indian government.

What sparked the latest crisis?

The year 2023 started well for India and Canada. Foreign minister Melanie Joly visited India twice and spoke of a need for enhanced cooperation. But, ties quickly turned for the worse, particularly because the Khalistan issue resurfaced in bilateral ties. Attacks on temples and demonstrations near the Indian high commission in Ottawa led to increased tensions between the two countries as India accused Canada of not taking its concerns seriously. India’s foreign minister S Jaishankar accused Canada of practicing “vote bank" politics, in reference to the substantial support Trudeau’s Liberal Party enjoys from Sikh Canadian voters. Matters took a turn for the worse when Trudeau accused India of foreign interference in Canada's politics.

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