Canada-India Relations Teeter as Assassination Allegations Halt Trade Talks

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More than a month ago, negotiations were underway between Canada and India to establish a bilateral agreement aimed at amplifying trade and investment efforts across their borders. However, those discussions abruptly ceased when Canada pointed an accusatory finger at the Indian government, implicating them in the murder of an activist on Canadian soil. As a knee-jerk response, India handed down a demand for Canada to withdraw the majority of its diplomats stationed in India.

The roots of this escalating contention can be traced back to the 1940s. Despite typically maintaining amicable and productive relations, Canada and India have weathered a series of disruptive incidents over the last three-quarters of a century, which have ignited intermittent clashes.

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Last month, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau claimed “credible allegations” existed of Indian involvement in the murder of Sikh activist Hardeep Singh Nijjar, a Canadian citizen of Indian birth who was executed outside a Sikh temple in Surrey, B.C. India had long accused Nijjar of being entwined with terrorism based on his involvement in the political movement pushing for an independent Sikh homeland, the Khalistan. However, Nijjar continuously denied any association with terrorist efforts. His murder came whilst he was working with the Sikhs for Justice group organizing an unofficial diaspora referendum.

In swift response, India countered the allegations of their involvement in Nijjar’s assassination. The dispute has escalated into a diplomatic kerfuffle, culminating most recently in India demanding Canada to reduce its diplomatic presence.

Canada’s rapport with Sikh separatist activists, or the lack thereof, has been a point of tension with India for years, as stated by Maika Sondarjee, Assistant Professor of International Development at the University of Ottawa. This tension festered after many Sikh separatists associated with the Khalistan movement relocated to Canada following the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947. Canada has taken in numerous refugees from the Khalistan separatist movement, which to India appeared to symbolise acceptance of the movement they consider a national threat.

On the subject of terrorism accusations, the Indian government views the Khalistan movement as a threat to its national security and has condemned several retaliatory attacks by Sikh separatists. Canada’s reputation has been questioned by India, who have labeled it “a safe haven for terrorists, extremists and organized crime”. This has been fueled by historical incidents such as Operation Blue Star, the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, and the infamous bombing of Air India Flight 182.

India has long argued that Canada’s approach to Sikh separatist activists crosses a line. For Canada, however, their commitment to free speech provides the same rights to Sikh activists as to other activists within the country. This freedom of expression, which can sometimes be controversial, is deemed critical to maintaining Canada’s open society.

While past tensions have existed, both nations have managed to maintain a healthy relationship through strong diplomacy and shared commercial interests. However, the stalemate in their trade deal negotiations could have wider implications beyond the bilateral relationship. The deal is thought to be pivotal for Canada’s Indo-Pacific strategy, aiming to bolster its trade relations with 40 countries and economies in the Indo-Pacific region. The precarious state of relations indicates that Canada stands to lose more should the deal fall flat.

From Megret’s observation, the only plausible way for Canada to regain an advantage in this standoff is by producing incontrovertible evidence linking Nijjar’s assassination to either the Indian government or India’s foreign intelligence agency. Failure in this could deal a severe blow to Canada’s credibility and risk the total severance of its diplomatic relations with India. He states, “If the evidence is indeed credible, it will certainly strain the India-Canada relationship, but it could also significantly shrink the space left for India to deny.”