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US urges India to cooperate with Canadian probe into Sikh leader’s assassination

An unprecedented allegation by one major democracy essentially accusing another of carrying out a political assassination on its soil is raising serious concerns among the two nations’ key allies.

Officials in Washington and London are weighing the consequences after Canada publicly linked the Indian government to the killing of a Sikh leader three months ago. Canada announced Monday that in response it had expelled India’s top intelligence official to Canada. India retaliated on Tuesday by ordering a senior Canadian diplomat to leave the country.

“We are deeply concerned by the allegations raised by Prime Minister (Justin) Trudeau,” said Adrienne Watson, spokesperson for the White House National Security Council. “We remain in regular contact with our Canadian partners. It is essential that Canada’s investigation continues and that the perpetrators are brought to justice.

The United States is urging India to cooperate with the Canadian investigation, according to a senior State Department official.

The Indian government says any allegations of its officials’ involvement in violence in Canada are “absurd and motivated.”

“The Indian government must take this issue with the utmost seriousness. We are doing so, we are not seeking to provoke or escalate,” Trudeau told reporters on Tuesday.

These allegations, however, “risk obscuring other strategic challenges facing Canada, such as foreign interference from China and Russia.” This comes less than a year after Canada released an Indo-Pacific strategy that highlighted aspirations for a greater partnership with India,” noted Jonathan Berkshire Miller, director of foreign affairs, national security and defense at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute of Canada.

FILE – Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi welcomes Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau upon his arrival at the Bharat Mandapam convention center for the G20 summit, in New Delhi, September 9, 2023.

Canadian officials have not revealed what evidence they have linking India to the killing of Hardeep Singh Nijjar, a Canadian citizen.

“I fear that this incident, regardless of the veracity of Ottawa’s accusation, will have a generational impact on Canada’s relations with India. The damage has been done with the very public loss of face for Delhi,” Miller told VOA. “On the other hand, if this evidence is credible and definitive in favor of Delhi’s direct involvement, this is a blatant act that must be denounced and reprimanded. Many questions remain about the closeness of the link between India and this phenomenon.

A Canadian source cited by Reuters said: “We have worked very closely with the United States, including on yesterday’s public disclosure,” adding that Canadian evidence implicating India would be revealed “in due course.”

Contacted by VOA, the Federal Bureau of Investigation declined to comment.

British officials say they are in contact with their Canadian counterparts on this subject.

“It would be inappropriate to comment further while the investigation is ongoing by Canadian authorities,” a government official in London said.

India has repeatedly accused Canada of harboring “Khalistan terrorists and extremists” who are considered a threat to Indian national security.

Canadian officials have now canceled an economic mission to Mumbai next month. Officials in Ottawa and New Delhi acknowledged Tuesday that Canada-India trade negotiations are on hold.

Nijjar was shot dead by two masked gunmen on June 18 in a Vancouver suburb, outside a Sikh temple, of which he was the president. Police said it was a targeted killing and were searching for a third suspect who they believe helped the killers flee.

The 45-year-old man, originally from the state of Punjab in India, ran a plumbing business in the Canadian province of British Columbia. Indian authorities had labeled him a terrorist and charged him with targeted killings in his home state.

Canadian officials say Nijjar has never been charged with any crime in Canada and has peacefully advocated for a referendum in Punjab to establish an independent state of Khalistan.

Sikh separatist groups have sought this autonomy for decades. The Indian government has classified these activities as terrorism. This has been a particularly sensitive issue for years in Canada-India relations because Canada is home to the largest number of Sikhs outside of India’s Punjab region.

In 1985, Air India Flight 182 exploded off the coast of Ireland after leaving Canada for India via London. All 329 passengers and crew on board died. Authorities concluded that it was a terrorist act carried out by a pro-Khalistan group. A suspect was convicted in 2003.

The targeting of civilian aircraft follows a period of violence in India. Khalistan militants violently took control of the Sikh religion’s holiest site in 1984. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi ordered military commandos to respond, leaving hundreds of activists and pilgrims dead. The Prime Minister was then assassinated by two of her Sikh bodyguards. This sparked widespread violence in which thousands of Sikhs were killed. India’s ruling Congress Party has been seen as complicit in the killings.

According to a 2021 report from the Hudson Institute, 55 interrelated Kashmiri and Khalistani groups currently operate in the United States.

“Sikhs still feel hurt” by that history, Jesse Singh, founder and president of Sikhs of America, said Tuesday during a panel discussion in Hudson on terrorism and other regional security challenges.

Singh added that the Khalistan movement is not prominent among Sikhs in North America these days, but that the issue retains more resonance among the diaspora than among those from India who have moved.

Sikhs are the world’s fifth-largest religion and make up nearly 2 percent of the population in Hindu-majority India, with most Indian Sikhs living in Punjab, where their religion is the dominant faith.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi must “do more to reclaim the Sikh psyche,” according to Singh.

Sikhs have long played an outsized role in the Indian military, as well as as athletes and entrepreneurs. They also played an important role in India’s struggle for independence against the British.

Chief national correspondent Steve Herman was VOA’s South Asia bureau chief, based in New Delhi, from 2007 to 2010. VOA national security correspondent Jeff Seldin contributed to this report.