India Expels Canadian Diplomat as Dispute over Alleged Assassination Escalates

Evan Vucci/Pool via REUTERS//File Photo
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi welcomes Canada Prime Minister Justin Trudeau upon his arrival at Bharat Mandapam convention center for the G20 Summit, in New Delhi, India, Saturday, Sept. 9, 2023.

TORONTO – India expelled a Canadian diplomat Tuesday in a tit-for-tat move after Canada’s leader alleged the Indian government may have been behind the shooting of Hardeep Singh Nijjar, a Sikh separatist leader in British Columbia, and threw out an Indian diplomat identified as the senior intelligence officer at the embassy.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s allegation of assassination, made during an explosive speech before Parliament on Monday, followed weeks of behind-the-scenes contact with allied nations over the killing and sent relations between the two countries tumbling toward their lowest point.

The expelled Canadian diplomat was not named in an Indian government statement but was described by the Hindustan Times as the Canadian intelligence service’s New Delhi station chief.

Weeks before Trudeau’s announcement, Canada had asked its closest allies, including Washington, to publicly condemn the killing, according to a Western official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a diplomatically sensitive matter. But the requests were turned down, the official said.

A spokeswoman for Canada’s foreign minister said claims that “Canada asked allies to publicly condemn the murder of Hardeep Singh Nijjar, and were subsequently rebuffed, are false.”

“We will continue to keep our allies, including at the officials level, apprised of relevant information, while Canadian security agencies work fast to get to the bottom of the matter,” spokeswoman Emily Williams said.

The alleged assassination on June 18 of Nijjar, a Canadian citizen, was raised privately by several senior officials of the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing nations in the weeks before this month’s Group of 20 summit in New Delhi.

But it was not mentioned publicly ahead of the meeting, which Western leaders viewed as an important coming-out party for Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the Western official said. The Biden administration and its allies have been working to court India, which they see as a crucial counterweight to China.

Roland Paris, a University of Ottawa professor and former foreign policy adviser to Trudeau, said the episode has “already caused the most serious disruption in relations between the two countries that I can recall. . . . It will take some time for this story to work itself through.”

Trudeau on Tuesday called on India to treat the issue “with the utmost seriousness.”

“We are not looking to provoke or escalate,” he told reporters in Ottawa. “We are simply laying out the facts as we understand them.”

India has long accused the Canadian government of sympathizing with Sikh separatists such as Nijjar, whom it considered a terrorist. Canada has denied those claims.

India’s Foreign Ministry on Tuesday rejected Trudeau’s accusation that New Delhi was behind his death, calling it “absurd and motivated.”

The 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 ministry said in a statement.

Indian security agencies designated Nijjar a terrorist in 2020. They accused him of supporting attacks in India’s Punjab state, where separatists want to establish an independent Sikh homeland to be called Khalistan. Indian authorities say Nijjar headed a group called the Khalistan Tiger Force; they sought his extradition from Canada in 2022, the year they linked him to the slaying of a Hindu priest in Punjab.

The Khalistan movement has supporters in India and the large global Sikh diaspora. Thousands died during a separatist insurgency in Punjab in the 1980s and ’90s; the Indian government, fearing a return to that level of violence, launched a huge manhunt this year for a pro-Khalistan militant leader.

Months before Nijjar was shot by masked gunmen in the parking lot of a Sikh temple outside Vancouver, India ratcheted up pressure on Canada, Australia, Britain and the United States – home to significant Sikh communities and frequent pro-Khalistan demonstrations – to crack down on the movement, including by breaking up protests outside India’s diplomatic outposts.

Demonstrators stormed the grounds of Indian diplomatic missions in London and San Francisco this year to raise the movement’s yellow and blue flag, angering New Delhi. Indian officials say Khalistan supporters have also targeted Indian diplomats overseas, and they have fumed that Western governments provide inadequate security.

Canadian and other Western officials say their governments have told India they will increase security for its overseas missions and prosecute criminal activity, but they remain committed to allowing peaceful assembly and political speech in their countries.

Trudeau has aired the allegations at an awkward moment: Western nations, led by the Biden administration, are looking to woo India as a geopolitical and trade partner, as a counter to China. They have refrained from criticizing Modi over India’s increasing authoritarianism.

Michael Kugelman, a South Asia analyst at the Wilson Center, said the dispute poses a dilemma for the Biden administration, which has articulated a “values-based foreign policy that’s meant to emphasize rights and democracy.”

“The U.S. needs to walk a diplomatic tightrope in that Canada is an ally and neighbor while India is a key strategic partner,” Kugelman said. “There will be pressure on Washington to weigh in in support of Canada, but at the same time, it values, in a big way, its relationship with India.”

Canada, too, has sought to deepen its ties with India as part of an effort to counter China. Last year, the Trudeau government released an Indo-Pacific strategy that identified India as “a critical partner in Canada’s pursuit” of its objectives and pledged to grow economic ties with the country.

“Canada and India have a shared tradition of democracy and pluralism,” the strategy’s writers said, “a common commitment to a rules-based international system and multilateralism, mutual interest in expanding our commercial relationship and extensive and growing people-to-people connections.”

But the fraught nature of those ties was apparent at the G-20 summit. Trudeau was denied a bilateral meeting with Modi. The pair discussed Khalistan on the sidelines of the summit, according to Modi’s office, which said he conveyed “India’s strong concerns about continuing anti-India extremist elements in Canada.” Trudeau, meanwhile, said Monday that he raised the Nijjar allegations “directly” with Modi.

Trade talks between the two countries were paused this month.

Canadian officials have said that Trudeau also raised the allegations with President Biden and British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak.

White House National Security Council spokeswoman Adrienne Watson said Washington was “deeply concerned” about the allegations. In a statement, Watson said it was critical that “Canada’s investigation proceed and the perpetrators be brought to justice.”

Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong said her country had raised the issue with India at “senior levels” and expressed its “deep concern,” according to a spokesman.

James Cleverly, Britain’s foreign secretary, said in a post on X that the country had been “in regular contact” with its Canadian counterparts about the “serious allegations raised in the Canadian Parliament.” “Important that Canada’s investigation runs its course and the perpetrators brought to justice,” he wrote in the post, which did not mention India. Reuters reported that the country had no plans to pause its own trade talks with India.

Karthik Nachiappan, who studies India-Canada relations at the National University of Singapore, said that the presence of Khalistan supporters in Canada has long been the “cancerous tissue” between the countries, but that the allegations against New Delhi, if true, could create “much more damage” to its ties with other countries that care about foreign interference.

The Trudeau government this month announced a public inquiry into foreign interference in the country’s affairs by China and others. Opposition parties demanded the probe after the Globe and Mail newspaper reported allegations of election meddling by Beijing.

Members of diaspora communities from India, China and Iran have long accused Canadian authorities of failing to take seriously their claims that foreign governments are seeking to harass and intimidate them on Canadian soil. Canadian intelligence officials have named India as a source of interference.

“A targeted killing is not a country’s first step in foreign interference in a country,” said Jessica Davis, a former analyst at the Canadian Security Intelligence Service. “It’s a real escalation. . . . There is a certain element of failure in this in the sense that it’s the responsibility of the [Royal Canadian Mounted Police] and CSIS to detect and disrupt this kind of activity before it takes place in Canada.”

Stephen Brown, chief executive of the National Council of Canadian Muslims, said Tuesday that Trudeau’s announcement was “painful” but “could not be characterized as shocking” because the group had long warned that the Indian government was seeking to harass and target people here.

“They’re killing Canadians in broad daylight in our country,” he told reporters in Ottawa. “It’s absolutely unacceptable.”

After Trudeau’s announcement Monday, opposition leaders were united, saying that the allegations, if true, would constitute an unacceptable violation of Canadian sovereignty. But Tuesday, Conservative Party leader Pierre Poilievre said Trudeau needed to “come clean with all the facts” and provide more “evidence” for the allegations – a sign that the discussion here is about to become more polarized.