India, Canada expel diplomats over accusations Delhi assassinated Sikh

NEW DELHI — India expelled a Canadian diplomat on Tuesday in a tit-for-tat move after Canada’s leader alleged the Indian government may have been behind the shooting of Hardeep Singh Nijjar, a Sikh separatist leader in British Columbia, and threw out an Indian diplomat identified as an intelligence officer.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s allegation of assassination, made during an explosive speech before Parliament on Monday, followed weeks of behind-the-scenes contact with allied nations over the killing and sent relations between the two nations tumbling toward their lowest point.

Some of these allies nations, including the United States, however, declined to join Canada in jointly announcing the findings of the ongoing probe, underscoring the lengths the Biden administration has gone to avoid antagonizing India and court the Asian power as a strategic counterweight to China.

The expelled Canadian diplomat was not named in an Indian government statement but was described by the Hindustan Times as the Canadian intelligence service’s New Delhi station chief.

India on Sept. 19 expelled a Canadian diplomat after officials accused Indian government operatives of gunning down a Sikh leader in British Columbia. (Video: Reuters)

Trudeau says ‘credible allegations’ tie India to killing in Canada

The Indian government issued a statement Tuesday rejecting Trudeau’s accusation as “absurd and motivated.” India’s Foreign Ministry went on to say that the 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.”

Hardeep Singh Nijjar was designated a terrorist by Indian security agencies in 2020 and accused of supporting attacks inside India’s Punjab state, which is home to about 16 million Sikhs. India sought his extradition from Canada in 2022.

The movement he 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. Thousands died during a separatist insurgency in Punjab in the 1980s and ’90s, and the Indian government this year launched a massive manhunt for a pro-Khalistan militant leader.

Months before Nijjar was shot by masked gunmen in the parking lot of a Sikh temple outside Vancouver on June 18, India ratcheted up a campaign to pressure countries including Canada, Australia, Britain and the United States, home to significant Sikh communities and frequent pro-Khalistan protests, to crack down on the movement.

Earlier this year in London and San Francisco, protesters stormed the grounds of Indian diplomatic missions to raise their movement’s flag, angering the New Delhi government. Indian officials say pro-Khalistan supporters have also targeted Indian diplomats posted overseas.

India sees signs of renewed Sikh separatism and sounds the alarm

On Monday, Trudeau did not give specific evidence linking Indian operatives to the shooting but said Canada was looking into the killing with allied nations. The controversy comes at an awkward moment when Western nations, led by the White House, are looking to woo India as a geopolitical and trade partner and have refrained from criticizing Prime Minister Narendra Modi over India’s authoritarian backsliding.

In recent months, Canada began pushing its closest allies, the members of the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing network — comprising the United States, Canada, Britain, Australia and New Zealand — to raise Nijjar’s killing with India at the highest levels of government and issue a joint statement condemning the act as contravening international norms, said a Western official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of diplomatic sensitivities.

But several countries, including the United States, demurred, fearing a diplomatic backlash from the Modi government at a moment when India was due to hold a lavish coming-out party on the international stage, the G-20 Summit in New Delhi, the Western official said. Instead, the alleged assassination was privately raised by several senior officials from the Five Eyes countries in the weeks before the summit, which took place on Sept. 9 and 10.

On Sept. 18, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said India was potentially linked to the murder of Sikh leader Hardeep Singh Nijjar on Canadian soil. (Video: CTV via AP)

The summit turned out to be fraught, with Trudeau visibly sidelined and denied formal, bilateral talks with Modi. The Indian prime minister’s office announced on Sept. 10 that the two leaders had discussed the Khalistan issue on the sidelines of the summit and that Modi conveyed “India’s strong concerns about continuing anti-India activities of extremist elements in Canada.” Trudeau stayed a day longer than planned in New Delhi, which the Canadian High Commission, or embassy, attributed to a technical problem with his plane.

On Monday, Trudeau made the announcement alone in Parliament. He said he had expressed “deep concerns” to Indian security and intelligence officials about the killing and conveyed those worries “personally and directly” and “in no uncertain terms” to Modi while in India.

Washington described itself as “deeply concerned” about the allegations and said it was critical that “Canada’s investigation proceed and the perpetrators be brought to justice,” according to a statement by White House National Security Council spokeswoman Adrienne Watson.

A spokesman for Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong said her country had raised the issue with India at “senior levels” and expressed her “deep concern.”

Karthik Nachiappan, an expert on India-Canada relations at the National University of Singapore, said the presence of Khalistan supporters in Canada has long been the “cancerous tissue” in the two countries’ relations, but the alleged assassination — if true — could create “much more damage on the entire body” of Indian foreign policy.

“Canada is a G-7 country, and it’s also an ally of countries that have similar problems like the United Kingdom, like Australia, like the United States — which also increasingly care about this issue of foreign interference,” Nachiappan said. “It’s not just about the killing anymore. It’s become a much larger issue that deals with geopolitics, that deals with how countries like China, Russia — and now India has been added to the mix — are influencing and trying to interfere in liberal democracies.”

Underscoring India’s concern about the Khalistan movement’s threat, Indian officials this year demanded several Western countries take a harder stance against its supporters, including breaking up protests outside its overseas missions. In March, India removed concrete security barriers outside the British High Commission in New Delhi in an apparent move to punish the British government for failing to protect India’s own High Commission in London, which had been stormed and defaced by Khalistani protesters.

Western officials say their governments have told Indian officials they pledged to increase security for India’s overseas missions but remain committed to allowing peace assembly and political speech in their capitals.

The Canadian Liberal Party leader’s public allegation was particularly stunning because speculation had circulated for months among pro-Khalistan sympathizers — as well as Indian nationalists — that Nijjar’s shooting may have been linked to two other deaths that occurred within 45 days.

Supporters of Indian separatists using Twitter bots to promote violence

In May, Paramjit Singh Panjwar, also designated by India as a terrorist, was shot dead by masked gunmen in Lahore, Pakistan. And days before Nijjar’s shooting, Avtar Singh Khanda, a British-based pro-Khalistan leader who raised the movement’s flag above the Indian High Commission in London during the assault, died in a hospital in Birmingham. (British police said they were not investigating Khanda’s death.)

The Indian government did not comment at the time of the deaths, but theories of a state connection became television fodder, with several popular nationalist channels and pro-government analysts obliquely praising India’s uncompromising approach to Sikh separatism and the arrival of Indian intelligence services to the top echelon of the world’s covert operators.

One of the channels, Zee News, asked whether Nijjar’s death “will blow away even Israel’s mind.” Another, Times Now, wondered whether India’s Research and Analysis Wing, the external intelligence service, had become “the new Mossad.”

John Wagner in Washington contributed to this report.

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