India-Canada rift over Nijjar’s killing could turn out to be an India-West rift

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By P.K.Balachandran

Colombo, September 19: The tit-for-tat expulsions of senior diplomats by Canada and India on the issue of the murder of the Khalistani extremist Hardeep Singh Nijjar, allegedly by Indian agents in June this year, 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.

Nijjar was a Canadian citizen who was a leader of a Sikh separatist group calling for an independent Khalistan carved out of India for the Sikhs. The issue of his murder was contentious because Nijjar was a Canadian citizen and he was killed in Canada allegedly by an Indian agency. India has stoutly denied the allegation against it.

The Canadian Foreign Minister Mélanie Joly was quoted by 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).

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.

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.”

Broader Implications

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 parrot lines about being wedded to democracy in opposition to authoritarianism and campaign 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 aims 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 would 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 its traditional spirit of tolerance are being highlighted and condemned by the Western media consistently and governments occasionally.

But the powers-that-be in New Delhi and the right-wing nationalists who support the regime find Western criticisms intolerable. They  whip up anti-West sentiments through the media. Government raids the West’s businesses and media institutions regardless of their impact on India’s democratic claims and its relations with the concerned Western governments.

Meanwhile, with Indians becoming a larger and larger community in the US, Canada, UK and Australia, their cultures, thoughts and issues  are permeating the host countries. The Khalistan issue, Hindu-Muslim conflicts, and issues of caste (Dalit) discrimination have come to the forefront in these countries. They embarrass India, whose 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 at 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 for the foreseeable future.

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.

And India cannot expect any palliative or help from the US to contain Canada. After President Biden’s inquiries from Modi about the human rights situation in India on the sidelines of the G20 summit, the White House fired a salvo against India in the aftermath of the diplomatic expulsions.     

Late on Monday, the White House’s National Security Council spokesperson Adrienne Watson said in a statement: “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.”

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.


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