New Delhi: Tensions between Canada and India have reached new heights with dueling diplomatic expulsions and an allegation of Indian government involvement in the killing of a Sikh activist on Canadian soil.
Relations between the two countries have been tepid for several years and Canada’s allegations against the Indian government are likely to further sour things.
When Modi hosted the Group of 20 (G-20) leaders in New Delhi this month, he did not meet Trudeau one-on-one but on the sidelines of the summit, where India “conveyed strong concerns about continuing anti-India activities of extremist elements in Canada”.
The row centers around the Khalistan movement. India has repeatedly accused Canada of supporting the movement, which is banned in India. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in Parliament described what he called credible allegations that India was connected to the assassination of Hardeep Singh Nijjar in June. The Indian government denied any hand in Nijjar’s killing while also saying Canada was trying to shift the focus from Khalistan activists there.
Here are some details about the issue:
What is the Khalistan Movement?
The movement became a bloody armed insurgency in the 1970s and 1980s. It was centered in Punjab state, where Sikhs are the majority.
The insurgency lasted more than a decade and many innocent people lost their lives.
In 1984, Indian forces stormed the Golden Temple, Sikhism’s holiest shrine, in Amritsar to flush out separatists. The dead included Sikh militant leader Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale. On Oct. 31, 1984, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, who ordered the raid on the temple, was assassinated by two of her bodyguards, who were Sikh.
Anti-Sikh riots that followed the assassination led to loss of many lives, particularly in Delhi.
Is the movement still active?
There is no active insurgency in Punjab today, but the Khalistan movement still has some supporters in in the sizable Sikh diaspora beyond India. There has been many incidents of vandalism in Hindu temples and Gandhi statue desecrated in both United States and in Canada in the recent past.
Earlier, when farmers camped out on the edges of New Delhi to protest controversial agriculture laws in 2020, the movement was financially supported by many supporters of Khalistan living outside India.
How strong is the movement outside India?
India has been asking countries like Canada, Australia and the U.K. to take legal action against Sikh activists, and PM Modi has personally raised the issue with the nations’ prime ministers. India has particularly raised these concerns with Canada, where Sikhs make up nearly 2% of the country’s population.
Earlier this year, Sikh protesters pulled down the Indian flag at the country’s high commission in London and smashed the building’s window in a show of anger against the move to arrest Amritpal Singh. Protesters also smashed windows at the Indian consulate In San Francisco and skirmished with embassy workers.
India’s foreign ministry denounced the incidents and summoned the U.K.’s deputy high commissioner in New Delhi to protest what it called the breach of security at the embassy in London.
The Indian government also accused Khalistan supporters in Canada of vandalizing Hindu temples with “anti-India” graffiti and of attacking the offices of the Indian High Commission in Ottawa during a protest in March.
Last year, Paramjit Singh Panjwar, a Sikh militant leader and head of the Khalistan Commando Force, was shot dead in Pakistan.
Who was Hardeep Singh Nijjar
Hardeep Singh Nijjar, was called a human rights activist by Sikh organizations and a criminal by India’s government.
A plumber in Canada
Nijjar, 45 when he died, was a prominent member of a movement, and was organizing an unofficial referendum among the Sikh diaspora with the organization Sikhs For Justice.
He also owned a plumbing business and served as president of a Sikh temple or gurdwara in suburban Vancouver. In a 2016 interview with the Vancouver Sun he responded dismissively to reports in Indian media that he was suspected of leading a terrorist cell.
Canadian police said Nijjar was shot as he was leaving the parking lot of the Sikh temple where he served as president in British Columbia. He suffered multiple gunshot wounds and died at the scene.
After the killing, a lawyer and spokesperson for Sikhs For Justice, Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, said Nijjar had been a target of threats because of his activism. His killing was the second in two years of a prominent member of the Sikh community in Canada.
Pannun said he had spoken to Nijjar by phone the day before he was killed and that Nijjar had told him that Canadian intelligence had warned him that his life was at risk.
India and Canada: A glance through numbers
Canada is home to nearly 1.4 million people of Indian ethnic or cultural origin, about 3.7% of the country’s total population, according to the 2021 census.
More than 770,000 people reported their religion as Sikhism, about 2% of Canada’s population, and in 2019, the government designated April as Sikh Heritage Month.
India is the world’s most populous nation with 1.425 billion people as of April, according to the U.N.’s Department of Economic and Social Affairs. Sikhs are the majority in the northern state of Punjab state, but only about 1.7% of India’s total population.
With more than $13.7 billion in trade, India was Canada’s 10th largest two-way merchandise trade partner in 2022, Global Affairs Canada spokesperson Jean-Pierre J. Godbout said. Canadian merchandise exports to India totaled $5.3 billion, ranking ninth, Godbout said.
But Trudeau had frosty encounters with PM Modi in New Delhi recently and trade talks have been paused and a planned trade mission to India has been canceled.
Visitors from India rank as Canada’s fourth largest international air travel market, according to the census. In 2021, the 89,500 tourists from India spent $3.4 billion, the most of any group visiting Canada. Canadians visiting India spent $93 million the same year.
In November 2022, Canada and India reached an agreement to remove the restriction on the number of flights between the two countries, which had previously been limited to 35 flights per week.
Of the more than 800,000 international students in Canada at the end of 2022, 40% were from India, according to Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada data.