The unease brewing in India-Canada relations, now at its possible lowest, was laid bare for the public as Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau cited “credible intelligence” in the country’s parliament to allege the role of the Indian government’s agents in the murder of Hardeep Singh Nijjar “on Canadian soil” in June this year.
The Khalistan Tiger Force chief, designated “terrorist” by the Indian government in July 2020, was referred to as a “Sikh separatist leader” and “Canadian citizen” by Trudeau – the juxtaposition at the core of the .
Following Trudeau’s allegations – termed “stunning”, “extraordinary”, and “highly unusual” by global media outlets, and dismissed as “absurd” by Indian authorities – both the countries expelled each other’s top diplomats. Media outlets across the spectrum emphasised this freeze in bilateral ties would be felt “for years”.
Most of the reports and op-eds in Canadian media outlets were a tacit admission that there are “”. These acknowledged India’s long-standing differences with Canada over “harbouring Khalistani terrorists”, and took a sceptical tone towards Trudeau’s allegations citing absence of evidence and his government’s “”. But they stressed that the allegations – “if true” – would align India with the likes of Russia, China, and North Korea.
The editorials in the western media said the implications would be “” bilateral ties. Underlining Indian prime minister Narendra Modi’s purported drift towards “”, they said that India’s sliding democratic values would pose a difficulty for the western countries that were courting it as a geopolitical and trade partner, particularly as a counterweight to China.
‘Sikh separatist leader, activist’
“Indian authorities, who said Nijjar headed a group called the Khalistan Tiger Force, sought his extradition from Canada in 2022,” said a Washington Post published in Canada’s National Post. It referred to Nijjar as a “Canadian citizen”. However, the report said the 45-year-old “designated terrorist” was linked to the murder of a Hindu priest in Punjab.
“The movement Nijjar was part of seeks to form a breakaway state called Khalistan in the Punjab region and has supporters within India and among the large global Sikh diaspora,” the report said. It also mentioned a series of deaths of pro-Khalistani leaders across the world and India’s “campaign to pressure countries” to crackdown on the Sikh separatist movement.
In an on National Post, calling Nijjar “a Sikh activist”, journalist John Ivison said a Times of India report claimed Nijjar ran terror training camps in British Columbia. “Yet he does not appear to have been arrested or charged with anything in Canada.”
The report highlighted that the conflict stemmed from “what the Indian government’s statement referred to as ‘the inaction’ of successive Canadian governments” on Sikh extremism. It iterated that “Canada has a proud tradition of freedom of speech and expression” but it did not extend to “organising terror training camps”.
Directing sharp scepticism towards Trudeau, it said: “If this government has been playing footsie with extremist elements in exchange for their votes, it is not worthy of the office it holds.”
Notably, Canada is home to one of the largest overseas communities of Indian origin, and about as per 2021 census.
An in the Global and Mail said, “There are tensions, because the Indian government has for decades accused Canada of being soft on Khalistani terrorists.” However, it went on to say that India has “often conflated non-violent Sikh separatist advocates with terrorists and extremists”.
“If the Indian government is too ready to paint every advocate of an independent Khalistan, at home or abroad, as a terrorist, its critics in this country – and some Canadian politicians – are too willing to excuse violence and terrorism as legitimate dissent, especially if there are votes in it,” said another in the same publication.
However, the country's Sikh organisations said that the murder allegations against India were “unsurprising”, National Post. Another in the publication quoted Sikh MPs as saying that Trudeau corroborating a “potential link” was something they had “never imagined”.
“In the Sikh community, you grow up hearing about the Indian state and how they have treated Sikhs, how the Indian state keeps an eye on Sikhs in Canada,” said a liberal Sikh MP Iqwinder Gaheer. He added that “terror strikes at the very heart of the security” that a lot of Sikhs came to Canada for.
‘Allegations require extraordinary evidence’
Trudeau’s allegation was “explosive, albeit unproven”, said a in the Global and Mail titled ‘Trudeau tempers criticism as allies decline to condemn India over slain Sikh leader’. It said Canada’s conservative leader Pierre Poilievre had also called on Trudeau to “provide Canadians with hard evidence” against India.
“Foreign governments apparently feel as though they can reach into Canada with impunity. Countering that is now a pressing national priority.”
“Extraordinary allegations require extraordinary evidence,” said an in Toronto Sun. It added the Trudeau government has been “woefully inadequate” in countering foreign interference and that Canada’s relationship with India was “likely beyond repair”.
“We expect the Trudeau government — which has been woefully inadequate in countering foreign interference in Canadian democracy — to disclose the evidence that led it to conclude the Indian government was directly involved in Nijjar’s murder.”
‘Jingoistic nationalism’ in Indian media
The Washington Post report republished by National Post cited reportage by two Indian news channels, Zee News and Times Now, pointing towards extrajudicial killings by Israeli agents on foreign land.
The report said: “Zee News asked whether Nijjar’s death ‘will blow away even Israel’s mind’…Times Now wondered whether India’s Research and Analysis Wing…had become ‘the new Mossad’.”
The BJP government has “fomented a jingoistic nationalism”, noted a CBC . “It’s currently playing out on Indian media and social media, where Modi supporters are demanding that India make an example of Canada.”
Canada’s Five Eyes allies – Australia, New Zealand, the UK and the US – have “shown little inclination” to wade into the escalating controversy. “Most opted to treat the allegation as a matter still to be investigated,” said a CBC .
“For Canada’s allies, the accusation presents the risk of alienating the world’s most populous country just when they least want to do so.”
It was “far from certain that the US and other Canadian allies will rush to hold India to account”, said the Global and Mail . It further said that Canada’s allies showed signs "they are unwilling to join its public condemnation” of India.
It said despite Canada’s efforts “the US, Britain and other allies have declined to criticise” Modi publicly. The report quoted a former national-security analyst Stephanie Carvin as saying that “India is a much harder case, because everyone’s trying to woo India right now”.
On the West’s take on the accusations, a Washington Post republished by National Post said that the controversy has come at “an awkward moment” as Western countries are “wooing India” and “have refrained from criticising Modi over India's authoritarian backsliding”.
India is “counterweight to China” and “a huge economic market”, the report noted.
Dent to Modi’s image
In an titled “Did India assassinate a Canadian citizen?”, the Globe and Mail said Trudeau’s allegation concerned rights violation expected of an “outlaw state” such as Russia or North Korea, and “not the world’s largest democracy”.
“Not even China has gone that far.”
India under Modi “may be drifting toward authoritarianism”, it said, adding that it is nothing like the ”sort of bestial dictatorship that China or Russia is, and still worth courting as part of a global effort to contain them”.
”There will have to be a price paid” for Nijjar’s killing, the opinion piece read. ”A stiff one, lest other bully states be tempted to take similar liberties.”
Another in Toronto Sun said there have been “enough killings of Canadians” related to Khalistan and the violence must stop. “This is shocking and wrong…The Modi government could have sought extradition, they could have held a trial in absentia, they could have tried many other options.”
“Such brazen tactics” would be a mockery of the countries’ “shared values”, said the in National Post.
It noted that India was earlier deemed a “flawed democracy” in the Economist’s Global Democracy Index. It also mentioned that BBC offices in Delhi and Mumbai faced tax raids “after the corporation aired a critical documentary on Modi”, and Amnesty International closed as the Modi government targeted its “critics”.