The allegation was a bombshell: India was involved in the killing of a Canadian citizen on Canadian soil in June, the kind of targeted attack abroad more often associated with countries like Russia, the United States, Israel or Saudi Arabia.
An all-out diplomatic war ensued shortly after Canada’s prime minister made the accusation on Monday. Canada has urged its allies to unite to challenge India, with statements of concern issued in Washington and Canberra, Australia. India has moved to expel a top Canadian diplomat in a retaliatory move, and Indian officials have lined up to air their grievances with Canada.
But behind the slide in relations to what officials and analysts call the lowest point on record lie years of diplomatic tensions. In New Delhi’s eyes, Western countries – notably Canada – have stood idly by as extremist Sikh groups, including the one led by the murdered Canadian citizen, have supported a secessionist cause that threatens the Indian state.
Indian officials have accused their counterparts in Canada, Britain, the United States and Australia of inaction as the diaspora mobilizes for Khalistan, the independent nation that Sikh secessionists want to establish in the region of Punjab. vandalized Indian diplomatic missions and threatened Indian diplomats.
India’s response partly reflects its domestic policies. The Indian government has long maintained that the Khalistan cause enjoys little support in Punjab. Yet ruling party officials have described the Sikh-dominated farmers’ movement of 2020 and 2021, the biggest challenge to Mr Modi’s decade-long rule, with the same broad “secessionist” brush they have applied to extremist Sikh elements abroad.
This has led many analysts to believe that Mr. Modi could fuel Khalistan by portraying it as a major threat as part of a time-tested political and electoral tactic in which he presents himself as the protector of India, especially of its Hindu majority.
The diplomatic row began Monday when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, in an urgent speech to Parliament, said Canadian security agencies had credible evidence that Indian agents were linked to the fatal shooting of Hardeep Singh Nijjar, a separatist leader Sikh in British Columbia. Canada has the largest Sikh population outside of India, and the Canadian government has said it will take strong action to protect its citizens and sovereignty.
If the role of Indian agents is confirmed, it could mark a new turning point for Indian security agencies. While India’s intelligence agency, known as the Research and Analysis Wing, or RAW, has long been suspected of involvement in targeted assassinations in neighboring countries, analysts and former security officials have said Mr. Nijjar’s murder would be the first known case in India. a Western nation.
India has strongly rejected this allegation. In a statement, his foreign ministry rejected “any attempt to link the Indian government” to Mr. Nijjar’s death and accused Canada of harboring “extremists and terrorists” who “continue to threaten sovereignty and the territorial integrity of India.
KC Singh, a former Indian ambassador, said the serious nature of Canada’s claim, a Group of 7 country, had been undermined by the failure of the Trudeau administration to reveal any evidence linking the attack to the Indian government .
Mr. Singh said it was clear the problem had worsened since the killing, as Sikh groups pointed fingers and protested against Indian diplomats, increasing pressure on Canadian politicians.
“India is furious at the long rope extended to the Sikhs of Canada who seek independence for Indian Punjab. Canada is agitated by a violation of its sovereignty and a threat to its citizens. The gap between the two sides has widened,” Mr. Singh said. “The domestic politics of both countries dictate stubbornness. »
Signs of this rift had begun to emerge when Mr. Trudeau undertook a rocky trip to India last week for the Group of 20 summit. First there was a frosty meeting with Mr. Modi. Then there was Mr. Trudeau’s absence from a banquet attended by other world leaders, including President Biden. To top it off, a plane breakdown kept Mr. Trudeau stranded in his New Delhi hotel for two more days, while he refused an Indian offer of a replacement plane.
It was in New Delhi, Mr. Trudeau said on Monday, that he presented the Canadian conclusions “in unequivocal terms” to Mr. Modi. On Tuesday, the Indian government reported that Mr. Modi had “completely rejected” Mr. Trudeau’s claims.
The Khalistan separatist movement, which actually dates back to before the partition of India at the end of British colonial rule in 1947, reached a bloody climax in the 1980s.
When a group of militants violently seized the Golden Temple, Sikhism’s holiest site, in 1984 to defend their Khalistani cause, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi sent commandos to clear them in a bloody operation that left hundreds of deaths. Two Sikh bodyguards, angered by Mrs Gandhi’s actions, then assassinated the Prime Minister during her morning walk to her office.
Thousands of innocent Sikhs died in the widespread pogroms that followed, with India’s ruling Congress party seen as complicit. In 1985, Khalistan separatists were accused of detonating a bomb on an Air India flight from Toronto to London, killing more than 300 people.
Even as the secessionist cause finds dwindling support in Punjab, it remains a rallying cry among Sikhs in Western countries – what Mr. Singh, the retired ambassador, described as “a fiction in the “spirit of certain radical elements of the diaspora”.
Indian officials have said they view inaction against the groups’ activities in these countries as being driven by local political calculations. The Sikh diaspora grew into powerful agricultural lobbies in countries like California and Australia.
Mr. Nijjar, the 45-year-old Sikh separatist leader, was wanted on terrorism charges in India. In 2018, the country’s top investigative agency filed a case against him, accusing him of “conspiring and planning a major terrorist attack in India” and “sourcing funds to acquire arms/ammunition and train young Sikhs to carry out terrorist activities. in India.” India has reportedly requested his extradition.
It was particularly focused, the agency said, on rallies of a right-wing nationalist organization known as the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, or RSS, which is the ideological source of Mr. Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party.
Vineet Joshi, a senior party leader in Punjab, said Mr. Nijjar, who moved to Canada in the 1990s, was little known in the state and that Khalistan was not much of a problem. But he said Canadian leaders must understand the difference between free speech and “talking about the disintegration of another nation.”
“They need to understand that this is not the same India,” Mr. Joshi said. “It is much stronger under the leadership” of Mr. Modi.
Indian officials have attributed the escalating tensions with the Canadian government largely to the attitude of Mr. Trudeau’s administration. They said that although British and American officials had expressed understanding of the threat of Khalistan extremism and promised to act, officials in Canada’s ruling party often sympathized with Khalistan groups, even though these groups were emboldened.
The groups organized referendums for an independent nation on Canadian soil. Over the summer, a Khalistani group in Canada held a painting in a parade depicting the murder of Mrs. Gandhi.
Mr. Trudeau’s national security adviser, Jody Thomas, recently cited India, along with Russia and China, as sources of “foreign interference” in Canadian affairs. Indian Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar hit back. At a press conference in New Delhi in June, he took inspiration from a local saying in Hindi that roughly translates to: Thieves accuse cops of theft.