Canada | India | Diplomatic faceoff | Bilateral relation | Khalistan demand

PM Narendra Modi | PM Justin Trudeau
PM Narendra Modi | PM Justin Trudeau


What is the diplomatic standstill between India and Canada about?

The declaration of persona non grata to each other’s senior diplomats confirmed a sour diplomatic faceoff between Canada and India.

By Ashish Ghimire |

It was September 18 noon in the city when Canada declared a top Indian diplomat stationed at the High Commission of India in Ottawa persona non grata and asked him to leave the country. Foreign Minister Melanie Jolie informed the same in a press conference.

In a tit-for-tat move, issuing a press release on September 19, India declared a top Canadian diplomat stationed at the High Commission of Canada in New Delhi persona non grata and asked him to leave the country in five days.

According to foreign affairs experts, declaring senior diplomats persona non grata is a registration of strong protest against the other state.

This diplomatic faceoff between Canada and India took the surface following Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s allegations against India that the latter was involved in the murder of a Canadian citizen and Sikh activist Hardeep Singh Nijjar.

In an address to the Canadian parliament the day the Indian diplomat was asked to leave, PM Trudeau stated that Canadian security agencies had “been actively pursuing credible allegations” that linked the involvement of Indian intelligence agents in the killing of Nijjar.

“Any involvement of a foreign government in the killing of a Canadian citizen on Canadian soil is an unacceptable violation of our sovereignty,” he added.

Hours before the Canadian diplomat was asked to leave, India’s Ministry of External Affairs had issued a press release rejecting the allegation.  

These events have led to sourness in the bilateral relations of the two countries.

Hardeep Singh Nijjar, the Khalistan demand, and India

Nijjar was gunned down outside Guru Nanak Sikh Gurdwara in Surrey of British Columbia Province on June 18. Sikh activists claim the Indian government’s involvement in his killing.

He was the chief of the Khalistan Tiger Force, an organisation demanding the establishment of Khalistan — an independent Sikh state out of India. The organisation has been listed as a terrorist group by India since February 2023, citing its involvement in anti-India activities.

Nijjar was also listed as a terrorist in July 2020. However, he was called a human rights activist by Sikh organisations supporting the Khalistan demand. Following his death, some Sikh separatist groups in Canada organised an unofficial referendum over the demand of the Khalistan state among the Sikh diaspora.

Also, visuals threatening Indian Diplomats reportedly circulated, which Ottawa did not specify, along with public posters calling for “besiege” of India’s diplomatic missions in Canada.

Reportedly in June, the High Commission of India in Ottawa asked the Canadian government to provide security for its diplomats.

The Modi administration has been accusing Canada of allowing Sikh secessionist groups to operate on its soil for a long time. They alleged Canada of supporting Sikh separatism when four Sikhs were appointed ministers in the cabinet of Trudeau in 2015. 

For India, Nijjar was suspected mastermind of the 2016 Punjab bombing as reported by Indian media. However, he then denied all the allegations asserting that he was a Canadian citizen with a plumbing business alongside a duty to serve the Sikh diaspora. 

During his official visit to India in 2018, Trudeau was criticised for his delegation meeting a man named Jaspal Atwal, who was convicted for an attempted assassination of Punjab’s cabinet minister Malkiat Singh Sidhu in Vancouver Island, Canada.

In 2020, when farmers from the state of Punjab came to protest against controversial agricultural laws, India filed a criminal case against him for “conspiring to create an atmosphere of fear and lawlessness, and inciting people to rise in rebellion against the Government of India.”

In 2022, when a Hindu priest was allegedly attacked, Indian authorities accused him of his connection, announcing $16,000 for providing information related to his whereabouts.

India had asked the Canadian government to take legal action against those echoing anti-Indian statements operating from Canada. India also accuses extremist elements in Canada of having damaged diplomatic premises and inciting violence against Indian communities. 

On the other hand, Canada often accuses India of interfering in their domestic politics through diasporas.

The Sikh Independence movement often garners attention in Canada and the United Kingdom as both countries have sizable Sikh diaspora.

Meanwhile, PM Trudeau claims Nijjar’s killing was discussed in brief conversations on the sidelines of the G20 Summit held in New Delhi earlier this month. However, no formal bilateral meetings were held between Canada and India.

As of now, Sikh community groups such as the British Columbia Gurdwaras Council (BCGC) and Ontario Gurdwaras Committee (OGC) have reportedly urged the Canadian government to “immediately suspend all intelligence, investigative and prosecutorial cooperation with India” in response to remarks from PM Trudeau.

India’s External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar says that the Khalistani issue has been a concern of national security for India. He has accused the Canadian government of being driven by vote bank politics.

In Canada, where Sikhism is one of the fastest-growing religious groups, the population of Sikhs accounts for 0.77 million while the total population is 38 million.

Edit by Vivek Baranwal

Ashish Ghimire is a Writer and Researcher at the_farsight.

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