Written by Anoushka Patel
Edited by Annika Lilja
The escalating row over the murder of prominent Sikh separatist leader Hardeep Singh Nijjari in British Columbia this summer has boiled over in the past few weeks, stalling the progress India and Canada have been making towards a free trade agreement. Nijjar – who was designated a terrorist by India in 2020 – was shot outside of a temple in June.
The Indian government has accused Nijjar of participating in a 2007 cinema bombing in Punjab that killed 6 people and injured 40, as well as the 2009 assassination of Sikh Indian politician Rulda Singh. He was also wanted for his alleged involvement with the Khalistan Tiger Force (KTF), a banned militant group in the country.
Nijjar was part of the Sikh separatist movement, which has long been a source of tension between India and Canada (Canada has the largest number of Sikhs outside of India). The movement was at its peak in the 1980s, which resulted in two of the most controversial moments in Indian history. This included the storming of the Golden Temple (the holiest site for Sikhs) by Indian troops on the orders of India’s former Prime Minister Indira Ghandi, which resulted in numerous deaths and damage to the temple. This was followed by Ghandi’s assassination by two of her Sikh bodyguards, who disagreed with her orders.
Advocates of the movement have been fighting for the creation of Khalistan – a separate homeland for Sikhs, who are a religious minority that make up around 2% of India’s population. All mainstream political parties in India are opposed to the idea of Khalistan and have denounced the violence caused by separatists.
The movement’s roots in both Canada and Britain can also be traced back to the 1980s, as diaspora groups expressed shock at the unfolding events in India. In 1985, a bomb exploded on an Air India flight from Toronto to London, killing all 329 people on board. After an investigation, two Sikh separatists in British Columbia were acquitted of murder and conspiracy charges in 2005, and a third man was found guilty of manslaughter for his role in making the bomb. India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi has repeatedly accused Canada of not doing enough to prosecute Sikh separatists and "anti-India" activities in Canada.
Tensions came to a breaking point on the 19th of September, when Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced that Canada was investigating “credible allegations” about the potential involvement of Indian agents in the murder of Nijjar earlier this year. India responded by strongly denying the allegations, calling them “absurd.” Both countries have traded insults over the row and have already expelled each other’s diplomats, with reconciliation unlikely for the foreseeable future as Trudeau reiterated his claims a few days later.
What followed was a brief but frosty meeting between Trudeau and Modi at the G20 summit hosted in Delhi, and Trudeau suffered the embarrassment of having to wait in Delhi for two more days before he could leave due to a technical fault with his plane. After the summit, there was no sign of tensions cooling off; Mr. Trudeau said Canada would always defend “freedom of expression,” and the Indian government released a sharp statement in return, saying it had “strong concerns about continuing anti-India activities of extremist elements in Canada."
Relations between the two have survived previous strains – but the Khalistan issue seems to be a topic on which the two nations are divided. They have a lot in common: "a shared tradition of democracy and pluralism" and "a common commitment to a rules-based international system," as Canada itself describes. They are both Commonwealth countries and members of the G20 group of leading world economies. The countries also have strong trade links: India was Canada's 10th largest trading partner in 2022, with bilateral trade in goods at $11.9bn that year, up 56% from the previous year.
Although Mr Trudeau has received support domestically from politicians, including the opposition leader Pierre Poilievre, over his stance on Nijjar’s murder, so far Canada’s Western allies have been much more cautious about giving their full support to Canada – the most noticeable absence of support being from the USA. Given India’s strategic importance to Western nations as part of countering China’s growing influence, the Canada-India row has presented a geopolitical challenge, at least in the short term. If Canada continues to issue strong statements and goes on to directly accuse India, it will present a unique challenge to Western governments, especially the UK and Australia. The West’s clear backing of India at the recent G20 summit highlights how much the West is depending on India to ally itself against China.
The row has presented a moment of vulnerability for Canada, who is a strong Western ally, but not seen as a global power. Canada’s main issue is that its security concerns are currently considered secondary to India’s strategic importance. For Trudeau, the harsh geopolitical reality meant a solitary few days on the world stage while the tensions with India reached new heights - diplomatic expulsions, travel advisories and a suspension of all visa services for Canadians travelling to India. For an already unpopular Trudeau, whose approval rating is at an all-time low, his strict stance on the row may provide a much-needed bump of support at home – potentially at the cost of alienating Canada’s allies.
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