India, Canada trade diplomatic blows over murder allegations

Mr Hardeep Singh Nijjar was shot dead outside a Sikh temple in Surrey, British Columbia, on June 18. PHOTO: REUTERS

NEW DELHI – India characterised as “absurd and motivated” an accusation by Canada that it was involved in the murder of a Sikh separatist leader and expelled a senior Canadian diplomat. The move came hours after Canada expelled the South Asian nation’s top intelligence agent.

New Delhi has also urged Ottawa to take legal action against anti-Indian elements operating from its soil.

The dispute deals a further blow to diplomatic ties, with New Delhi unhappy over Sikh separatist activity in Canada.

Canada said on Monday it was “actively pursuing credible allegations” linking Indian government agents to the murder of Mr Hardeep Singh Nijjar in British Columbia in June.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said in an emergency statement to the House of Commons that any involvement of a foreign government in the killing of a Canadian citizen was “an unacceptable violation of our sovereignty”.

India responded on Tuesday with a statement dismissing Canada’s claims.

“Allegations of government of India’s involvement in any act of violence in Canada are absurd and motivated,” New Delhi’s External?Affairs?Ministry said in the statement, adding: “We are a democratic polity with a strong commitment to rule of law.”

The accusations “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”, it added.

“We urge the government of Canada to take prompt and effective legal action against all anti-India elements operating from their soil,” the ministry said.

In a tit-for-tat move, New Delhi also said it was expelling a Canadian diplomat, who had been given five days to leave the country.

It added that the expulsion reflects India’s “growing concern at the interference of Canadian diplomats in our internal matters and their involvement in anti-India activities”.

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Mr Nijjar was shot dead outside a Sikh temple in Surrey, a city about 30km east of Vancouver, on June 18.

He was known for his advocacy of the creation of an independent Sikh nation, Khalistan, that would include parts of India’s Punjab state. India had declared him a wanted terrorist.

Mr Nijjar was vocal about the threats to his life, which were shared with Canada’s spy agency, said the non-profit World Sikh Organisation of Canada in a statement.

“Canada must immediately identify and bring to justice those individuals who were involved in the targeted killing of Hardeep Singh Nijjar,” the organisation added.

Mr Trudeau said he raised the issue with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the sidelines of the Group of 20 (G-20) summit in New Delhi last week.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi ahead of the G-20 leaders’ summit in New Delhi on Sept 9, 2023. PHOTO: AFP

Mr Trudeau said he urged the government of India to “cooperate with Canada to get to the bottom of this matter”.

“Canada has declared its deep concerns to the top intelligence and security officials of the Indian government. Last week at the G-20, I brought them personally and directly to Prime Minister Modi in no uncertain terms.”

Mr Modi, meanwhile, conveyed his strong concerns to Mr Trudeau at the G-20 summit over recent demonstrations in Canada by Sikhs, who called for an independent state.

Trade ties

The diplomatic strain is now threatening trade ties. Talks on a proposed trade deal are now frozen. Canada gave few details while India cited “certain political developments”.

Several countries including the United States, Australia and Britain have expressed concern over the allegations.

“We are deeply concerned about the allegations referenced by Prime Minister Trudeau earlier today,” US National Security Council spokeswoman Adrienne Watson said in a statement released late on Monday night.

“We are in close touch with our Canadian partners about these serious allegations,” a British government spokesperson said. “It would be inappropriate to comment further during the ongoing investigation by the Canadian authorities.”

Mr Trudeau did not directly accuse India of being involved in Mr Nijjar’s death.

Foreign Minister Joly later used more cautious language, saying “if proven true”, the allegations would be unacceptable.

British Columbia’s Integrated Homicide Investigation Team said in August there were three suspects, though no arrests have been made.

Canada has the highest population of Sikhs outside their home state of India’s Punjab, and the North America country has been the site of many demonstrations that have irked India.

Canada is also home to one of the largest overseas communities of Indian origin, which number approximately 1.4 million out of an overall Canadian population of 40 million. About?770,000?people reported Sikhism as their religion in the?2021?census.

Public Safety Minister Dominic LeBlanc said several senior Canadian government officials had visited India recently to express Ottawa's concerns.

In April, India asked London for increased monitoring of Britain-based supporters of a Sikh separatist movement.

New Delhi was upset after protesters carrying “Khalistan” banners detached the Indian flag from the diplomatic mission’s building in London.

British Columbia Sikh Gurdwara Council spokesman Moninder Singh speaking to the media on Sept 18 outside the Guru Nanak Sikh Gurdwara temple in Canada, where Mr Hardeep Singh Nijjar was killed. PHOTO: REUTERS

Sikhs are a relatively small religious group, with about 25 million adherents worldwide, most of them in India.

A violent Sikh insurgency that took shape in India in the 1980s killed a number of government officials. The government responded with widespread human rights abuses, including torture and extrajudicial killings, according to rights groups.

In 1984, then Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi sent the military to storm the Golden Temple in Amritsar, the holiest site in Sikhism, which had been fortified by heavily armed Sikh militants.

The government said hundreds of people were killed in the clash, but others put the death toll in the thousands.

In retaliation, two of the Mrs Gandhi’s Sikh bodyguards assassinated her, prompting riots in which thousands of Sikhs were killed.

In 1985, a bomb exploded on an Air India flight that was travelling from Montreal to Bombay, as Mumbai was known then. The explosion occurred while the plane was on its Montreal to London leg. All 329 people on board were killed.

It remains Canada’s deadliest terrorist attack and worst mass murder.

India is especially concerned about a banned secessionist group, which fought to create Khalistan in the 1980s and 1990s.

The movement made headlines earlier in 2023 when a self-styled preacher, Amritpal Singh, called on his followers to revive it. He was later arrested after a manhunt.

The Khalistan movement continues to find some support among the Sikh diaspora, especially in Australia, Britain and Canada. REUTERS, BLOOMBERG, NYTIMES, AFP

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