Canada has recently taken a bold and unprecedented step in its foreign policy by expelling a senior Indian intelligence official and accusing India of being behind the assassination of a Sikh separatist leader in British Columbia. India called the allegation “absurd”, and in an India-typical move expelled a Canadian diplomat from its country. Historically speaking, India has a past of cracking down on Sikh separatists and other religious minorities within and outside its borders. For instance, Pakistan has also frequently accused India of carrying out killings of militants on its territory. Speaking after Trudeau’s allegations, Pakistan’s former foreign minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari called India a “rogue Hindutva [Hindu nationalist] terrorist state”
The Background of the Conflict
The conflict between Canada and India stems from the long-standing issue of the Khalistan movement, which seeks to create an independent Sikh homeland in parts of northern India and Pakistan. The movement was most active and violent in the 1980s and early 1990s, when thousands of people were killed in clashes between Sikh militants and Indian security forces. The movement was largely suppressed by India, but it still has some support among the Sikh diaspora, especially in Canada, which has a Sikh population of more than 770,00, or about 2 per cent of its total population, the largest Sikh population outside of India.
India has repeatedly accused Canada of harbouring and supporting Sikh extremists, whom it claims are plotting terrorist attacks against India. India has also expressed its displeasure with the Canadian government for allowing Sikh protesters to freely express their views and grievances on Canadian soil, such as displaying Khalistan flags and banners or commemorating the 1984 anti-Sikh riots in India, which resulted in the deaths of thousands of Sikhs.
Canada, on the other hand, has maintained that it respects the right to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly of its citizens and residents, as long as they do not violate Canadian laws or incite violence. However, the relations between the two countries reached a new low in June 2023, when Hardeep Singh Nijjar, a prominent Sikh leader and advocate for Khalistan, was shot dead outside a Sikh temple in Surrey, British Columbia. Nijjar was wanted by India for allegedly carrying out terrorist attacks in India, and was designated as a terrorist by India in 2020.
The Canadian Response
After a thorough investigation by Canadian authorities, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced on September 18 that there are “credible reasons” to believe that Indian agents may have been behind the murder of a Sikh separatist on Canadian soil, and that Canada had expelled a key Indian diplomat, who was the head of India’s foreign intelligence agency in Canada. Trudeau said that this was a serious violation of Canada’s sovereignty and security and that Canada would not tolerate any foreign interference or violence on its soil. Trudeau’s announcement was welcomed by many human rights groups and civil society organizations in Canada and abroad, who praised Canada for taking a principled stand against India’s human rights abuses and interference.
Increasing HRVs in India
According to Human Rights Watch, India has faced several human rights challenges in 2023, such as: allegations of torture and extrajudicial killings persisted, with the National Human Rights Commission registering 147 deaths in police custody, 1,882 deaths in judicial custody, and 1,017 cases of fake encounters. Indian government also targeted religious minorities, especially Muslims who have faced discrimination and violence from Hindu nationalist groups, who enjoyed impunity and support from the ruling party. The Modi-led BJP government failed to ensure justice for the victims of the 1984 anti-Sikh riots, the 2002 Gujarat riots, the 2008 anti-Christian violence in Odisha, the 2013 communal violence in Muzaffarnagar and continued discrimination to date. Before the G-20 summit, Amnesty International and other human rights organizations raised concerns over human rights violations in IIOJK. PM Trudeau also highlighted HRVs at the G-20 summit and now the expulsion of an Indian diplomat clearly indicates the grave situation.
The Implications for the Future
The expulsion of the Indian diplomat and the accusation of India’s involvement in Nijjar’s killing have sparked a diplomatic crisis between Canada and India, which are both members of the Commonwealth and important trading partners. The conflict between Canada and India is likely to have negative impacts on their bilateral trade and cooperation, which have been growing steadily over the years. India is Canada’s tenth-largest trading partner, and plans for a trade deal have been in the pipeline for over a decade. However, in 2023, bilateral trade between the two amounted to just C$13 billion, far below its potential. The current dispute could further derail any progress on trade negotiations or agreements.
The conflict could also have implications for the regional and global order, as both Canada and India are influential players in their respective regions and beyond. Canada is a member of NATO, the G7, the G20, and other international organizations, and has a strong voice and reputation for human rights and democracy. India is also a member of the BRICS, the SCO, the SAARC, and other regional and global forums, and has ambition on economic and security matters. However, India’s continuous stubbornness on HRVs and involvement in terrorist activities on foreign soil can triger a serious diplomatic crisis at both regional and international levels.
Canada’s bold move against India shows its commitment to human rights and its willingness to stand up to a powerful and assertive country that has been accused of violating the rights of its own people and interfering in the affairs of other countries. Canada’s move could inspire other countries to follow suit and challenge India’s human rights record and behaviour. It is high time for the international community and the United Nations Security Council to take serious action against continuous HRVs by the Modi regime inside and outside of the country.
Iqra Awan is a Research Fellow at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org