Canada and India are in the midst of a bitter and unprecedented war of words over the killing of a Canadian Sikh man in British Columbia. We lay out the claims and the geopolitical fallout.
Tell me how this whole thing started…
The killing: In June, a Canadian Sikh—Hardeep Singh Nijjar—was shot by masked men in the parking lot of the gurdwara—where he served as president. All three suspects remain at large.
The shocking allegation: On Monday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told Parliament that his government is investigating “credible allegations of a potential link” between the Indian government and the killing of Nijjar (more on him below). Trudeau also declared:
Any involvement of a foreign government in the killing of a Canadian citizen on Canadian soil is an unacceptable violation of our sovereignty. In the strongest possible terms, I continue to urge the government of India to cooperate with Canada to get to the bottom of this matter.
New Delhi strongly denied the charges, calling them “absurd and motivated.” Canada expelled the head of India’s intelligence agency—RAW—in the country. India returned the favour by expelling the chief of the Canadian intelligence agency station in India.
Who was Nijjar? Here are the facts most media accounts agree on. Nijjar moved to Canada in 1997 and worked as a plumber—and became a citizen in 2015. He was an ardent advocate of the Khalistan movement—describing himself as a self-proclaimed “Sikh nationalist who believes in and supports Sikhs’ right to self-determination and independence of Indian-occupied Punjab.” When he died, Nijjar was in the midst of organising a referendum among the global Sikh diaspora—supporting the establishment of Khalistan.
But, but, but: While Nijjar is described as an “activist” in Western media reports, the Indian government has labelled him as a wanted terrorist since 2016. He also appeared on a ‘most wanted’ list handed over to Trudeau by then Punjab CM Amarinder Singh in 2018. New Delhi claims he was the chief of a separatist group called Khalistan Tiger Force. True or not, he is certainly very popular in terrorist circles:
Nijjar was also friendly with Dal Khalsa leader Gajinder Singh, one of the five hijackers of an Indian Airlines flight in 1981. Gajinder Singh is currently in Pakistan. “Hardeep Singh Nijjar was a dedicated Khalistani until the end. He was like a son to me. He met me a few years ago and solidified the bond of love and thoughts. He was a true Khalistani at heart,” Gajinder Singh said in a statement following Nijjar’s murder.
Oddly enough, despite Indian reporting to the contrary, the New York Times claims: “In Punjab, however, politicians and journalists asserted that despite such charges against him, many locals had never heard of him or his movement.” That said, Nijjar has strenuously denied these charges for decades—claiming he’s being punished for raising awareness about the 1984 anti-Sikh violence.
Critics of the efforts say the attention-getting exercise is symbolic and unlikely to prove persuasive, given all the votes cast so far have occurred outside of India. “If people in Quebec wanted to have separation, they wouldn’t go to Russia to have a referendum,” says [political scientist] Shinder Purewal.
Neither Trudeau nor Canadian intelligence agencies have commented on the allegations against Nijjar. But none of the governments—present or past—have acted on India’s allegations either. That said, one presumes Ottawa doesn’t think that New Delhi veered wildly into an extrajudicial killing in a foreign country simply to take out an “activist.” 🤷🏾
But is there evidence of the Indian government’s involvement?
So far, Trudeau has not publicly disclosed any hard facts to back his claims. Canadian government sources say that the evidence "will all be shared in due course"—but is being withheld due to the “sensitivity of the situation.” The leader of the opposition—Conservative Party leader Pierre Poilievre—made clear that Trudeau didn’t share any intelligence with him either.
But, but, but: According to a Washington Post report, Trudeau shared some kind of evidence on Nijjar’s killing with Canada’s Five Eyes partners. This is a close intelligence-sharing alliance with the US, UK, Australia and New Zealand. He wanted them to take joint action ahead of the G20 summit—but was turned down.
Also this: Trudeau said:
Over the course of the summer, we have been working with our intelligence agencies. We wanted to make sure we had solid grounding in understanding what was going on. We wanted to share with our allies what we knew. The government of India needs to take this with the utmost seriousness.
And Canadian sources told Reuters: "We've been working with the US very closely, including on the public disclosure yesterday.”
Reading the tea leaves: The US has not refuted the claim and has been supportive of Canada’s investigation—but without calling India out. A senior national security official told CNN:
There’s an active investigation. We think it needs to be fully transparent, comprehensive. We know that the Canadians have worked to that end. Again, we urge India to cooperate with that investigation so that the facts can take the investigators where they go… Certainly, the President is mindful of these serious allegations and they are very serious. We support Canada’s efforts to investigate this.
The other Five Eyes partners have also made similar noises. All of which suggests that Ottawa may have some kind of ‘evidence’—whether or not it represents the proverbial smoking gun.
Point to note: Some news reports claim that Trudeau shared this intelligence with PM Modi at the G20 summit—and was given the brush-off. That could be one trigger for the public confrontation. The other possible reason: domestic politics. Trudeau needs the support of key Sikh MPs like Jagmeet Singh to keep his parliamentary majority. And he is already under pressure over reports of Chinese interference in Canadian elections. However, sources close to him say Trudeau’s hand was forced by media inquiries—which suggested the story had already leaked.
Is this going to affect India’s global clout?
New Delhi is highly critical to Washington right now. As the New York Times notes, “India is seen as perhaps the most important of the so-called global south states that the United States is wooing in its geopolitical contests with Moscow and Beijing.” A Canadian expert puts it more bluntly:
India’s a much harder case, because everyone’s trying to woo India right now. And no one wants to risk upsetting that. At the end of the day, you have to consider the fact that India is useful in countering China and we’re not.
But, but, but: Canada is one of America’s oldest and closest allies—kinda like Russia is for India. Washington isn’t likely to abandon Ottawa either, according to foreign policy experts:
If this was an operation sponsored by the Indian government, it certainly doesn’t help them to have come to light at a moment when they’re trying to position themselves as a kind of fulcrum in international affairs. Many Canadians will be looking to Canada’s closest partners to express the kind of outrage that many Canadians feel if, in fact, this murder was perpetrated by the Indian government.
Both the UK and Australia have made clear that they plan to move ahead with their bilateral trade agreements—irrespective of the investigation. But all of them will be hard pressed to pick India over Canada if indeed it produces hard proof of New Delhi’s involvement.
The bottomline: We don’t know whether or not the Indian government did indeed take out Nijjar. What we do know: We don’t need rightwing pundits celebrating any such action. Is RAW the “new Mossad”? We effing hope not. As the Economist soberly points out:
India may hope to emulate Israel’s Mossad, whose famously long arm strikes foes far away. But it risks being classed with Russia, whose murders abroad have provoked widespread condemnation and Western sanctions. If the allegation is correct, RAW may have spotted a chance to get rid of a troublesome separatist in Canada and send a message to others like him. It is unclear how high a price India will pay.
For more on Biden’s foreign policy dilemma, read the Washington Post and New York Times. Economist has an excellent take on the convoluted geopolitics involved. Also in the Washington Post: how Trudeau was rebuffed by allies ahead of the G20. The Telegraph has a good piece that looks at Trudeau’s motives—including the weight of his evidence. CNN has a good explainer on the Five Eyes alliance. For more on Nijjar, read Indian Express, Globe & Mail (paywall) and Washington Post. If you want to understand why New Delhi is bitter about Canada’s refusal to act against Khalistanis, read this Print piece on the infamous Air India bombing—which killed all 329 people on board back in 1985.