India expels Canadian diplomat amid deepening spat over slain Sikh activistafter Canada's claim that India might have played a role in his assassination within Canadian borders. This led to a worsening dispute between Ottawa and New Delhi and both countries have responded by expelling high-ranking diplomats, causing a significant deterioration in their diplomatic relations.
These reciprocal diplomatic expulsions followed a statement by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, in which he mentioned that Canada was actively looking into "credible accusations" connecting India to the June assassination of Hardeep Singh Nijjar, a Canadian citizen and a prominent Sikh leader.
"Over the past number of weeks, Canadian security agencies have been actively pursuing credible allegations of a potential link between agents of the government of India and the killing of a Canadian citizen Hardeep Singh Nijjar," Trudeau said in parliament on Monday, adding his government would take all steps necessary "to hold perpetrators of this murder to account."
Canada has announced the expulsion of an Indian diplomat, described by Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly as the head of India's intelligence agency. Minister Joly stated, "Today we’re acting by expelling a key diplomat, but we will get to the bottom of this." She further mentioned that Prime Minister Trudeau had discussed this matter with both U.S. President Joe Biden and British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak.
In a reciprocal move, India's foreign ministry has confirmed the expulsion of a high-ranking Canadian diplomat stationed in India.
"The concerned diplomat has been asked to leave India within the next five days," it said in a statement. "The decision reflects Government of India’s growing concern at the interference of Canadian diplomats in our internal matters and their involvement in anti-India activities."
Hardeep Singh Nijjar held a significant role as a Sikh leader in Western Canada. In June, local law enforcement reported that he was fatally shot by two masked assailants while inside his truck outside a Sikh temple in Surrey, British Columbia.
The tragic incident sent shockwaves through the Sikh community in Canada, which is one of the largest Sikh communities outside of India, boasting more than 770,000 members of a religious minority.
Subsequent to Prime Minister Trudeau's remarks, two prominent Sikh community organizations in Canada, the British Columbia Gurdwaras Council (BCGC) and Ontario Gurdwaras Committee (OGC), called on the Canadian government to "immediately suspend all intelligence, investigative and prosecutorial cooperation with India."
A big yellow banner with the picture and name of Hardeep Singh Nijjar with three women walking in front of it
"Canada’s comprehensive response must reflect the gravity of India’s role in the premeditated murder of a Sikh dissident living in Canada," the groups added in a joint statement.
Balraj Singh Nijjar, the son of Hardeep Singh Nijjar, addressed the media on Tuesday at the location where his father was tragically killed. The 21-year-old expressed gratitude to Prime Minister Trudeau and other Canadian political figures.
It was just a matter of time for when the truth would come out. When we heard the news today, it was a sense of relief that it’s finally coming to the public.- Balraj Singh Nijjar
Hardeep Singh Nijjar was a vocal advocate for establishing a separate Sikh homeland known as Khalistan, as stated by the World Sikh Organization. He frequently led peaceful protests, supported by the advocacy group, to address what they referred to as "violation of human rights actively taking place in India and in support of Khalistan."
It's worth noting that the Khalistan movement is deemed illegal in India and is viewed by the government as a national security concern. Several groups associated with this movement are classified as "terrorist organizations" under India's Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA). Nijjar's name was included on the Home Ministry's list of individuals designated as UAPA terrorists.
In 2020, the Indian National Investigation Agency leveled accusations against him, asserting that he had been involved in "trying to radicalize Sikh community across the world in favor of the creation of 'Khalistan.'" Additionally, they claimed that he had been "trying to incite Sikhs to vote for secession, agitate against the Government of India, and carry out violent activities."
On Tuesday, India issued a statement vehemently rejecting Prime Minister Trudeau's allegations, deeming them "absurd and motivated."
We are a democratic polity with a strong commitment to the rule of law. Such unsubstantiated allegations 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. The inaction of the Canadian Government on this matter has been a long-standing and continuing concern.- India’s foreign ministry
The White House is "deeply concerned" about the allegations, National Security Council spokesperson Adrienne Watson said in a statement.
"We remain in regular contact with our Canadian partners. It is critical that Canada’s investigation proceed and the perpetrators be brought to justice," she said.
Canadian law enforcement has not made any arrests in connection with the murder of Hardeep Singh Nijjar. However, in an update provided in August, the police issued a statement indicating that they were actively investigating three potential suspects. They also shared details about a potential getaway vehicle and appealed to the public for assistance in their investigation.
A spokesperson representing Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong expressed their country's profound concerns regarding the allegations as well.
"We are closely engaged with partners on developments. We have conveyed our concerns at senior levels to India," a statement said.
"We understand these reports will be particularly concerning to some Australian communities. The Indian diaspora are valued and important contributors to our vibrant and resilient multicultural society, where all Australians can peacefully and safely express their views."
A big yellow banner with the picture and name of Hardeep Singh Nijjar banner on the top of a mosque Canada's accusations against the Indian government, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, are likely to further strain relations between the two nations. There have been reports suggesting that their ongoing trade negotiations have been put on hold, with India's commerce and trade minister citing "certain issues which are of serious concern" as the reason.
The issue of activism within Canada's substantial Sikh diaspora has been a persistent source of tension between the two countries.
During a recent Group of 20 (G20) summit held in New Delhi, Prime Minister Modi chose not to engage in a one-on-one meeting with Prime Minister Trudeau. Instead, they met on the sidelines of the summit, where the Indian leader "conveyed our strong concerns about continuing anti-India activities of extremist elements in Canada," according to a statement released by the Indian government. Relations between these two leaders have been notably excellent for several years.
When Justin Trudeau visited India in 2018, his schedule, which appeared to have fewer diplomatic meetings, was widely interpreted as a diplomatic "snub" by New Delhi.
At that time, analysts noted that Trudeau's perceived alignment with Sikh activists was a specific point of contention. In 2017, the Canadian Prime Minister attended a Sikh event in Toronto where separatist flags and posters featuring an extremist Sikh leader killed during a 1984 Indian Army operation were prominently displayed.
In its statement about Trudeau’s allegations on Tuesday, the Indian government said: "That Canadian political figures have openly expressed sympathy for such elements remains a matter of deep concern."
The space given in Canada to a range of illegal activities including murders, human trafficking and organised crime is not new. We urge the Government of Canada to take prompt and effective legal action against all anti-India elements operating from their soil.- The Indian government
People protesting in Canada after the death of Hardeep Singh Nijjar
The Sikh religion, founded in the 15th century by Guru Nanak, boasts approximately 25 million adherents worldwide. In India, Sikhs constitute a minority, representing less than 2% of the country's 1.4 billion population. However, they constitute a majority in the northern state of Punjab, which was once the heartland of a significant and influential Sikh empire.
The roots of the modern Khalistan movement can be traced back to the time of India's independence from British colonial rule in 1947. During this period, certain Sikh groups advocated for the creation of a separate nation within the state of Punjab for followers of the Sikh faith.
The Partition of India, which hastily divided the former colony along religious lines, resulted in the migration of Muslims to the newly established nation of Pakistan and Hindus and Sikhs to the newly independent India. Punjab, which was bisected during this partition, witnessed some of the most intense communal violence during that tumultuous period.
During this period, Sikhs embarked on a heightened struggle for political and cultural autonomy, a development noted by scholars, and it marked the rise of the Khalistan movement. Over the years, violent confrontations have erupted between supporters of the Khalistan movement and the Indian government, resulting in significant loss of life.
The culmination of this tension occurred in 1984 when then-Prime Minister Indira Gandhi ordered Indian troops to launch an operation at Amritsar's Golden Temple, the most sacred site in Sikhism, with the aim of eliminating Sikh separatists. This operation sparked tremendous outrage within the Sikh community, and in its aftermath, Gandhi was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards. The days following her assassination witnessed deadly violence, leading to the tragic loss of over 3,000 lives, primarily Sikhs.
A year later, this violence spilled over into Canada when Sikh separatists orchestrated a bombing of an Air India plane departing from Toronto airport. This devastating act claimed the lives of all 329 individuals on board, including numerous Canadians of Indian descent.
While supporters of Khalistan within India remain on the fringes, the movement continues to garner sympathy from some Sikhs within the global diaspora, notably in Canada, Britain, and Australia. A minority, but influential, faction among these Sikhs supports the idea of Khalistan, occasionally holding referendums to gauge consensus for the establishment of a separate homeland.