India has ordered a senior Canadian diplomat to leave the country within five days, escalating a diplomatic rift between the two nations. This decision comes hours after Canada expelled an Indian diplomat, deepening the ongoing tensions triggered by the murder of Sikh separatist leader Hardeep Singh Nijjar earlier this year.
The Indian Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) issued a statement on Tuesday expressing its “growing concern at the interference of Canadian diplomats in our internal matters and their involvement in anti-India activities.” This latest development has led to a breakdown in trade talks and the cancellation of a planned trade mission to India by Canada.
The core of the dispute lies in pro-Sikh independence protests in Canada, which have irked Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government. Ottawa recently claimed to be “actively pursuing credible allegations” connecting Indian government agents to the murder of Nijjar, who was shot outside a cultural center in Surrey, British Columbia, on June 18. Nijjar was allegedly organizing an unofficial referendum in India for an independent Sikh nation at the time of his death.
India swiftly rejected Canada’s accusations, dismissing them as “absurd and motivated.” Instead, India urged Canada to take legal action against anti-Indian elements operating from its soil. The Sikh independence movement, known as the Khalistan movement, is banned in India, which views it and affiliated groups as a national security threat. However, this movement still garners some support in northern India, as well as in countries like Canada and the United Kingdom, which host sizable Sikh diaspora communities.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau addressed the Canadian Parliament on Monday, raising Nijjar’s killing during discussions with Prime Minister Modi at the Group of 20 (G20) summit in New Delhi. Trudeau emphasized that any Indian government involvement would be unacceptable and called for cooperation in the investigation. The MEA responded by stating that such “unsubstantiated allegations seek to shift the focus from Khalistani terrorists and extremists” who, according to India, find shelter in Canada and pose a threat to its sovereignty and territorial integrity.
In retaliation for Canada’s expulsion of an Indian diplomat, Canadian Foreign Minister Melanie Joly confirmed the expulsion of a top Indian diplomat, whom she identified as the head of Indian intelligence in Canada. Joly characterized this potential foreign government involvement in a Canadian citizen’s murder as a grave violation of sovereignty and diplomatic norms.
Canada is home to a Sikh population of over 770,000, approximately 2 percent of its total population.
Hartosh Bal, executive editor of The Caravan magazine in India, shed light on the Khalistan movement’s status. Bal noted that the Khalistani movement has been virtually non-existent within India, particularly in Punjab, where Sikhs form the majority. He suggested that the Modi government has consistently exaggerated the Khalistani threat to India, which serves its domestic political interests. Bal also highlighted that while the movement maintains some roots in Canada and the UK, the vast majority of Sikhs reside in India and do not participate in this referendum.
The controversy surrounding Nijjar’s killing has led to a rare consensus between Canada’s political leaders. Jagmeet Singh, leader of Canada’s New Democratic Party and a Sikh himself, expressed his astonishment at Trudeau’s remarks, emphasizing that challenging India’s human rights record could hinder travel to India. British Columbia Premier David Eby expressed deep concern after receiving a briefing from Canada’s intelligence agencies about Nijjar’s “assassination.”
The World Sikh Organization of Canada described Nijjar as a vocal supporter of Khalistan who actively protested against human rights violations in India and in support of Khalistan. Nijjar’s lawyer, Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, claimed that Canadian intelligence officials had warned Nijjar about being targeted for assassination by “mercenaries” before his murder.
Sikh separatism in India dates back to the 1980s when an armed rebellion for an independent Sikh state erupted in Punjab. In 1984, Indian forces conducted Operation Blue Star, storming the Golden Temple in Amritsar to flush out Sikh separatists who had taken refuge there. This operation, considered controversial, led to the deaths of about 400 individuals according to official figures, while Sikh groups estimate a higher toll.
The aftermath of Operation Blue Star saw the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by two of her Sikh bodyguards, triggering anti-Sikh riots across northern India. Modi’s government has intensified its efforts to combat Sikh separatism, even accusing protesting farmers of being “Khalistanis” during the 2021 farmer protests. The government also arrested a climate activist for her alleged connections to Sikh independence supporters.
In recent months, incidents of vandalism against Indian consulates in London and San Francisco by Khalistan movement supporters, as well as the arrest of a Khalistani leader known for advocating an independent Sikh homeland, have further heightened tensions in the ongoing dispute between Canada and India.
As both nations grapple with these complex issues, diplomatic relations remain strained, and the path towards reconciliation appears uncertain.