Wednesday, June 12, 2024
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India-Canada Ties Hit a New Low

– Dinesh Dubey 

With India suspending visa applications by Canadian nationals, India and Canada have touched the lowest ebb in the history of their diplomatic relations after years of simmering tensions. The Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) spokesman Arindam Bagchi described the move as a technical and security one. He stated that the Indian High Commission and its Consulates in Canada were “temporarily unable” to process visas because of safety threats, though he added up that “we will be reviewing the situation on a regular basis.”

The week began with Premier Justin Trudeau’s loud claim on the floor of Canadian House of Commons on Monday that “Indian agents” were behind the murder of a Sikh leader and “Canadian citizen” Hardeep Singh Nijjar on “Canadian soil.” His statement was followed by the expulsion of a senior Indian diplomat, Pawan Kumar Rai, from Ottawa-based Indian High Commission. Within hours, in a diplomatic tit-for-tat response, India also told New Delhi-based Canadian High Commission to ease out a senior Canadian diplomat, Olivier Sylvester, within five days. Both the diplomats were heading the intelligence units in their respective missions.

As it was not enough, Premier Trudeau reiterated his claim on a couple of occasions while interacting with the media followed through by Canadian government’s advisory for its citizens traveling to Jammu & Kashmir and parts of northeastern states. The MEA too issued a travel advisory, in response.

The Indian advisory asked it citizens living in or traveling to Canada to “exercise utmost caution” because of what it described as an increase in “anti-India activities and politically condoned hate crimes and criminal violence in Canada.” Recently, “threats have particularly targeted Indian diplomats and sections of the Indian community who oppose the anti-India agenda,” the advisory noted.

India Makes a Point

In fact, the Indian government not only vehemently rejected the Canadian claim that it had been involved in the killing of Nijjar, but also accused Canada of harboring terrorists who are working for a separate Sikh homeland out of Indian territory.

On Thursday, spokesperson Bagchi signalled that more Canadian diplomats could soon leave India, in what he called a step to ensure a kind of diplomatic parity. “Their numbers here are very much higher than ours in Canada,” he said. “The details of this are being worked out, but I assume there will be a reduction from the Canadian side.”

In Canada, although opposition Conservative Party leaders have not been satisfied with the unsubstantiated charges by Premier Trudeau, a section of Canadians have voiced outrage at the possibility that the Indian government had played a role in the killing of “a Canadian citizen on Canadian soil.” In July, protesters outside the Indian Consulate General in Toronto promoted the Sikh secessionist cause with signs that accused Indian diplomats of being behind Nijjar’s killing. On Wednesday, the MEA also pointed to what it called “threats to the safety of its citizens and diplomats.”

The Indian government has long accused Canada and other Western nations of inaction as extremist Sikh groups in the Indian diaspora — including the one headed by Nijjar— have supported a secessionist movement that threatens India’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. The National Investigation Agency have issued a list of 43 individuals wanted in serious cases of crime and terrorism. Interestingly, most of them are either living or have links with terrorists and gangsters in Canada.

In response to the Canadian stand that it respects the “right of all of its citizens to freedom of speech” in advocating political causes, Indian officials argue that Canadian politicians are reluctant to curb Sikh extremism because of their lobbying and business clout, the largest population of Sikhs outside India.

Officials in New Delhi have accused Canada, Britain, the United States and Australia of standing by those who are pushing for an independent Sikh homeland carved out in the Punjab state of India. Emboldened by that, such elements have been vandalising Indian diplomatic missions and have threatened Indian diplomats.

It is in this backdrop, the Indian foreign ministry decided to halt the issuance of all categories of visas for Canadian citizens. They would be unable to apply for an Indian visa even through a third country. The Indian government had been forced to suspend visas, spokesperson Bagchi said, because of “incitement to violence, the inaction by Canadian authorities and the creation of an environment that disrupts the functioning of our high commission and consulates.”

Divided Diaspora

The stunning allegation that India was behind the assassination of a Sikh separatist Nijjar has revived long-simmering tensions within Canada’s Indian diaspora, pitting staunch Hindu nationalists against supporters of the creation of an independent Sikh state. Last October, in Ontario, the police broke up a fight in which one man was injured after two groups, carrying Indian and Khalistan flags, became unruly during a Diwali celebration. In March this year, a Punjabi journalist covering a protest of an Indian high commissioner’s visit to Surrey, British Columbia, was attacked.

These episodes underscore the challenges that Canada — home to the world’s largest Sikh population outside India — faces following Trudeau’s stunning accusation that India was responsible for shooting Nijjar. This is high time that leaders of both the communities get together to isolate pro-Khalistan elements, most of whom are linked to crime syndicates involved in drug and human trafficking, in the diaspora.

Prime Minister Trudeau’s loud allegations have set off a diplomatic skirmish, as the country seeks India’s cooperation with its investigation into Nijjar’s killing. The matter to ponder over here is that if Trudeau really needed Indian cooperation to reach to the bottom of truth, why did he jump to the gun in claiming that his government has “credible information” of Indian agent’s involvement in the killing.

Canada and Five Eyes

Canada is a prominent member of the Five Eyes Alliance, which is a multilateral intelligence-sharing platform formed in post-World War-II scenario. Other four members include the United States and Commonwealth countries of United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand. Primarily the alliance of so-called Anglo-Saxon countries, the Five Eyes is largely guided and controlled by the US and UK in catering to their global foreign policy goals.

The US President Joe Biden is virtually caught in a bind as both Canada and India are two important democracies and allies of the US. He has been assiduously courting India as a counterweight to China in the Indo-Pacific. Only two weeks back he had a bilateral meeting with PM Modi on the eve of G20 and developed a powerful chemistry with him. About three months back, Biden had hosted Modi as a State visitor during the latter’s three-day visit to the US. Biden has expressed his “deep concern” over the worsening ties between his two friends, and appealed both to find out an amicable solution out of the current standoff.

The US National Security Adviser Jack Sullivan, nonetheless, told reporters at White House that, “regardless of the country, we will stand up and defend our basic principles and we will also consult closely with allies like Canada as they pursue their law enforcement and diplomatic process.” Secretray of State Antony Blinken also echoed his sentiments by calling on Delhi to cooperate in push for ‘accountability’ over killing, adding up that the

US takes “very, very seriously”such incidents of “transnational repression.”

The US, Britain and Australia have all been prioritising closer ties with India, seeing it not just as one of the fastest growing economies but also as a strategic balancer against hegemonic China. They expect that democratic India will also be their partner in the economic isolation of Russia after the invasion of Ukraine.

Britain is also close to striking a post-Brexit trade deal with India possibly as soon as next month, and on Tuesday British government said that negotiations would “continue as before” while Canadian investigations are ongoing. Meanwhile, the US, Australia and Japan are partners with India in the Quad, a quadrilateral security dialogue, that restarted in 2017.

A former Pentagon official Michael Rubin has said that Justin Trudeau’s allegations have led to “greater danger” for Canada than India, that if the United States has to choose between Ottawa and New Delhi, it will surely choose the latter. He further stated that India is far more important strategically than Canada is and Ottawa picking up a fight with India is like “an ant picking up a fight against an elephant”.

For the moment, it is relatively easy for the western nations to adopt “a wait and watch approach”, marking time until Canada’s investigation becomes clearer. They will want to see how the situation develops, and engage with both countries in private. Our big challenge, nevertheless, would be in staying extra cautious in view of preventing the unfortunate row escalating into a diplomatic disaster.

(Foreign Policy Commentator)

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