India expelled a senior Canadian diplomat on Tuesday and accused Canada of interfering in its internal affairs, ramping up a confrontation between the two countries over accusations that the Indian government may have been involved in the killing of a Sikh activist.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau later said that Canada wasn’t looking to escalate tensions, but asked India to take the killing of Hardeep Singh Nijjar seriously after India called accusations that the Indian government may have been involved absurd.
“India and the government of India needs to take this matter with the utmost seriousness,” Trudeau said. “We are doing that. We are not looking to provoke or escalate. We are simply laying out the facts as we understand them and we want to work with the government of India to lay everything clear and to ensure there are proper processes.”
Trudeau said Monday that his government was investigating allegations that India was connected to the assassination of Niijar.
“It’s a sigh of relief for the family and the Sikh community here because from day one we kind of had this idea and knowledge that if anything would happen to him the Indian government would be involved,” said Niijar’s son, Baraj Singh Nijjar.
“It was just a matter of time for when the truth would come out. It’s finally coming to the public eyes that the Indian government is involved in this. It’s a really serious foreign interference case.”
Niijar, 45, was gunned down in British Columbia in June, and Canada expelled a top Indian diplomat. India rejected the allegations as “absurd.”
The dueling expulsions escalate tensions between Canada and India. Trudeau had frosty encounters with Prime Minister Narendra Modi during the Group of 20 meeting in New Delhi, and a few days later Canada canceled a trade mission to India that was planned for the fall.
The movement to establish an independent Sikh homeland, known as Khalistan, has been a target of the Indian government since the 1980s, when a Sikh insurgency emerged that lasted more than a decade. It was suppressed by a crackdown in which thousands of people were killed, including prominent Sikh leaders.
Nijjar was wanted by Indian authorities, who had accused him of ties to terrorism for years and offered a cash reward for information leading to his arrest. Nijjar denied any ties to terrorism, and was working with an organization known as Sikhs For Justice to organize an unofficial Sikh diaspora referendum on independence from India at the time of his killing.
Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, a lawyer and spokesperson for Sikhs For Justice, has said Nijjar was warned by Canadian intelligence officials about being targeted for assassination by “mercenaries” before he was gunned down.
Trudeau told Parliament on Monday that Canadian security agencies were investigating “credible allegations of a potential link between agents of the government of India and the killing of a Canadian citizen.”
“Any involvement of a foreign government in the killing of a Canadian citizen on Canadian soil is an unacceptable violation of our sovereignty,” he said.
India’s foreign ministry dismissed the allegation as “absurd and motivated,” and accused Canada of harboring “terrorists and extremists.”
“Such unsubstantiated 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,” it wrote in a statement issued earlier Tuesday.
India has long demanded that Canada take action against the Sikh independence movement, which is banned in India but has support in countries like Canada and the U.K. with sizable Sikh diaspora populations. Canada has a Sikh population of more than 770,000, about 2% of its total population.
In March, Modi’s government summoned the Canadian high commissioner in New Delhi, the top diplomat in the country, to complain about Sikh independence protests in Canada. In 2020, India’s foreign ministry also summoned the top diplomat over comments made by Trudeau about an agricultural protest movement associated with the state of Punjab, where many Sikhs live.
Critics accuse Modi’s Hindu nationalist government of seeking to suppress dissenters and activists using sedition laws and other legal weapons. Some critics of his administration, including intellectuals, activists, filmmakers, students and journalists have been arrested, creating what Modi’s opponents say is a culture of intimidation.
Critics accuse Modi’s Hindu nationalist government of seeking to suppress dissidents and activists using sedition laws and other legal weapons. Some critics of his administration, including intellectuals, activists, filmmakers, students and journalists have been arrested, creating what Modi’s opponents say is a culture of intimidation.
Under Modi’s rule, religious minorities, particularly Muslims, have faced increasing attacks by Hindu nationalists, and assaults on the press and free speech have grown, with his administration using internet shutdowns to quell protests.
Trudeau told Parliament that he brought up Nijjar’s slaying with Modi at the G20 meeting in New Delhi last week. He said he told Modi that any Indian government involvement would be unacceptable and that he asked for cooperation in the investigation.
At the G20 meeting, Modi expressed “strong concerns” over Canada’s handling of the Sikh independence movement during a meeting with Trudeau at the G20, India’s statement said.
The statement called on Canada to work with India on what New Delhi said is a threat to the Canadian Indian diaspora, and described the Sikh movement as “promoting secessionism and inciting violence” against Indian diplomats.
Earlier this year, Sikh protesters pulled down the Indian flag at the country’s high commission in London and smashed the building’s window after India arrested a popular Sikh preacher. Protesters also smashed windows at the Indian Consulate In San Francisco and skirmished with embassy workers.
While in New Delhi for the G20, Trudeau skipped a dinner hosted by the Indian president, and local media reports said that he was snubbed by Modi when he got a quick “pull aside” meeting instead of a bilateral meeting.
To make things worse, Trudeau was stuck in India for 36 hours after the summit ended because his flight was grounded because of a mechanical snag.
“Trudeau’s turbulent India trip refuses to end,” read the headline on the India Today website last week.
It’s unclear when exactly Trudeau brought up Nijjar’s case with Modi during the G20.
Some analysts in India questioned whether Canada had proof of Indian links to the killing, and whether Trudeau was trying to drum up support among the Sikh diaspora.
“Such a charge against India by a G7 nation is unprecedented. The Canadian government has deliberately made a spectacle of it to please its domestic constituency amongst the Sikh diaspora,” said K.C. Singh, a former diplomat and strategic affairs expert. He added that Canada didn’t present hard evidence and that Trudeau’s statement “unnecessarily upped the ante.”
“India should’ve seen it coming. Trudeau needed to be engaged, not snubbed during his India visit. Now it has reached a point of difficult return,” Singh, the former diplomat, also remarked on X, formerly known as Twitter.
The British government said Tuesday that there are no plans to reinvestigate the death of a U.K-based Sikh activist in the wake of Canada’s claim India might have been behind the slaying of Nijjer.
Avtar Singh Khanda, who had played a prominent role in protests for an independent Sikh homeland, died in June in the central England city of Birmingham after falling ill. Supporters alleged be might have been poisoned, but Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s spokesman, Max Blain, said that police found no suspicious circumstances.
The Trudeau government’s allegations are awkward for the U.K., which is a close ally of Canada in the “Five Eyes” intelligence-sharing alliance, but is also seeking a free trade deal with India.
“These are serious allegations. It is right that the Canadian authorities should be looking into them,” Blain said, adding that it would be inappropriate to comment further while the investigation is underway.
In 1984, Indian forces stormed the Golden Temple in the state’s Amritsar city to flush out Sikh separatists, who had taken refuge there. The controversial operation killed around 400, according to official figures, although Sikh groups estimate the toll to be higher.
The prime minister who ordered the raid, Indira Gandhi, was killed afterwards by two of her bodyguards, who were Sikh. Her death triggered a series of anti-Sikh riots, in which Hindu mobs went from house to house across northern India, pulling Sikhs from their homes, hacking many to death and burning others alive.
Rob Gillies reported from Toronto. Aamer Madhani in New York, Sheikh Saaliq in New Delhi, and Jill Lawless in London, contributed to this report.