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Rising Tensions Between India and Canada

Recent rift between India and Canada causes repercussions on multiple levels

Canada-India relations have recently become a salient topic in Canadian diplomacy after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau accused India’s government of potentially being involved in the killing of Hardeep Singh Nijjar during a speech in the House of Commons.

 Indeed, the Canadian government believes that agents of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government are behind the murder of Hardeep Singh Nijjar, a Canadian and Indian citizen. This murder took place on June 18 in Surrey, British Columbia. Nijjar was known to be involved with the Khalistan movement as a Canadian Sikh separatist leader. This movement calls for an independent Sikh state, as Indian Sikhs constitute the fourth largest religious group in the country. Nijjar’s involvement with the Khalistan movement is in fact a significant aspect to the tensions that have risen between Canada and India. In fact, since Trudeau’s accusations, Indian media sources have presented Canada as a country that offers refuge to Khalistani terrorists

Trudeau’s accusations, and the Indian government’s reaction to them, has caused negative repercussions for Canada, whether it is diplomatically, economically, or socially. A key result of these tensions, for instance, has been the Indian demands of the repatriation of 41 Canadian diplomats, which was recently enacted on October 19. Along with that, India has warned its citizens to be cautious when traveling to Canada, and has stopped processing visitor visas for Canada. This can indicate a diplomatic setback for Canada, for whom India constitutes a “country that we want to have a good relationship with” according to Daniel Béland, Director of the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada and Professor in the Department of Political Science. When talking to the Daily, Béland emphasized the importance of salvaging “our relationship with India; in part because we have so many Canadians of Indian descent, along with foreign students and temporary workers from India.” “Four per cent of Canadians are of Indian background” and “half of that are from Sikh background” says Béland. As discussed with Professor Béland, this issue exceeds the realm of international relations as it “has ramifications that are important domestically” for instance within the Indian diaspora, “including tensions between Indians and Sikh people.” 

Daniel Béland explains that Canada has not received a lot of public support from its allies (such as the UK)- except for the US which has asserted support for Canada during these tensions- which might display a shift in Canada’s positioning in the world as a “middle-sized power.” However, he claims it is important to remember that “Canadian voters aren’t as interested in foreign diplomacy.” Béland discusses Canada’s tendency to focus on local issues rather than focusing on the country’s foreign correspondences. He says that foreign policy is “not necessarily a priority” in Canada, but that these tensions show that Canadian foreign policy is already shifting. There is “more push back on alleged foreign interference,” displayed through Trudeau’s decision to “publicly take a strong stance” on this issue, describes Béland.

Although these tensions might come off as pivotal for Canada and Canadian foreign policy, the Trudeau government has claimed that they are not looking to escalate tensions with India. “You need two partners to dance,” says Béland. Indeed, the future outcomes of these tensions will not only depend on the Canadian government, but also the Modi government’s response.

From India’s perspective, the Indian government has denied any involvement in the murder of Nijjar and has labeled these accusations as “absurd and politically motivated.” The Indian government views Canada as accepting of the Khalistan movement, which they consider to be a terrorist movement and a national security threat. The Indian government further reiterated their belief that Canada is “not doing enough to stem anti-India activism.” The Indian Minister of External Affairs, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, has explaimed that Indian diplomats positioned in Canada feel unsafe when going to embassies or consulates due to the “climate of fear” that has arisen. However, Jaishankar emphasized that India remains open to exploring any relevant or specific information that Canada might advance. Nonetheless, India expresses concerns of “continuous interference” in their internal affairs by Canadian agents, which threatens their “sovereignty and territorial integrity.”

The future of the Canadian-Indian diplomatic and political relationship is hard to predict. It will depend on the upcoming actions of both countries and how these tensions evolve; whether the countries are willing to cooperate, or, contrastingly, if they continue to exacerbate the friction.