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Anchal Vohra is a Brussels-based columnist for Foreign Policy magazine and writes about Europe, the Middle East and the Indo-Pacific.
Since Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to power, Western democracies have kept silent on the country’s democratic backsliding — mainly to keep him onside against China, but also to push through trade deals and gain access to India’s markets.
However, the long rope given Modi may just snap under the strain of Canada’s recent accusations that India carried out a targeted killing on Canadian soil.
Last week, a few days after returning from the G20 summit in New Delhi, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau suggested in parliament that Indian agents were behind the killing of Canadian citizen Hardeep Singh Nijjar — a Sikh separatist leader shot dead by masked gunmen on June 18.
He said the slaying was “an unacceptable violation’’ of the country’s sovereignty. And if Canada is to be believed, India has gone rogue.
As is to be expected, however, New Delhi has denied any involvement, describing Trudeau’s allegations as “absurd and motivated,” with India’s foreign affairs ministry depicting it as an attempt to distract from Canada’s inaction against “Khalistani terrorists and extremists” — a reference to secessionists calling for an independent state for Indian Sikhs.
Sikh separatists have sought shelter in Canada since the mid-1980s, after the Indian government cracked down on the movement and its leadership.
Then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi ordered Operation Blue Star in 1984, killing the group’s leader who was holed up in the holiest Sikh shrine. Later that year, she was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards. And just one year later, an Air India flight en route from Montreal exploded mid-air, killing all 329 passengers. Some of the Sikh separatists who fled to Canada were accused of being the culprits.
But while there is little to no popular support for Khalistan in the Sikh-dominated region of Punjab today, and no imminent fear of its revival, the diaspora has clung to the cause and tried to re-energize the campaign. At the time of his killing, Nijjar was organizing a nonbinding referendum to ascertain support for an independent Sikh nation.
The Indian state has legitimate concerns about Sikh separatists in Canada, but would that merit ordering an assassination in a friendly nation?
The burden of proof here lies with Trudeau who, at least for the first two days, didn’t receive the support he expected from his Western allies.
The United States expressed concern but calibrated, calling on both Canada and India to uncover the full truth without condemning New Delhi. The United Kingdom, home to a large Sikh population, said that it was not looking to “conflate’’ ongoing negotiations over a U.K.-India trade deal “with other issues.’’ And Australia, home to more than 200,000 Sikhs, was also restrained, simply stating it was “deeply concerned.”
Pro-government journalists in India have hailed all this restraint as support for the state, leaving their Canadian counterparts flummoxed, as they had apparently expected more from Canada’s allies — especially since Canada is a member of the Five Eyes intelligence alliance that includes the U.S., Britain, Australia and New Zealand.
However, it was Trudeau’s own comments that in some ways led to speculation that he had vague intelligence rather than concrete evidence, as he said Canadian security agencies had been actively pursuing “credible allegations” — not credible evidence — of a “potential’’ link between Indian agents and the killing.
There is, of course, an argument to be made that Trudeau shouldn’t have gone public and shouldn’t have paused trade talks with one of the fastest growing economies in the world. But perhaps the choice was made for him, as a Canadian paper was on the verge of publishing the story, and he wanted to get out ahead of it.
And with pressure building on Trudeau for more clarity, Washington apparently felt compelled to pick a side, with U.S. Ambassador to Canada David Cohen telling a Canadian television channel on Saturday that “shared intelligence among Five Eyes partners” informed Trudeau’s public allegation, insinuating there might just be a smoking gun.
But if any such evidence exists and were to be eventually produced in a public forum, such as a court, the prosecution would have to reveal how it was sourced — something that might jeopardize India’s ties with all Five Eyes members, including its most important ally, the U.S.
If proven, Canada’s accusations could be a game-changer, compelling Western leaders to reprimand the Indian government. As political analyst Scott Reid said to CTV, “You just can’t go to other people’s countries and kill their citizens. This is not a James Bond movie, that does not occur.’’
That isn’t how the situation appears in India, however, where Canada’s allegations seem to be helping Modi and his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Ask Modi’s supporters, and they think Bond and Smiley are all novices compared to Ajit Doval — India’s national security adviser and the second-most powerful person in the country.
Months before Trudeau’s allegations, Hindu nationalists were complimenting Doval for crushing the “Khalistani” leadership. “The dismantling of Khalistan has begun. Don’t Mess with Ajit Doval,’’ one tweet read. “If you are against India and want terrorism in India, we will get you,’’ read another, echoing Doval’s message.
Yet behind the unabashed nationalism of some of Modi’s supporters, there is a deep sense of victimhood among Indians who have long felt their governments were too weak and diplomatic to end terrorist attacks, often emanating from neighboring Pakistan. The siege of Mumbai in 2008 has left an indelible scar on the country’s collective psyche, and in the past, Modi pledged to wield an iron fist when it comes to terrorists.
In the late 1990s, under former Prime Minister Inder Kumar Gujral, India had abandoned, or severely limited, its covert operations, but Modi has since renewed the focus on security. He has given more resources to India’s spy agency, the Research and Analysis wing (RAW), and allowed it to enhance cooperation with Mossad. Suddenly, there were more leaks from unnamed security officials on Indian television claiming the agencies were “hunting down terrorists,” and more stories about the bravado of India’s spies.
But before Nijjar, two other Sikh separatists were also recently found dead under mysterious circumstances — one in Pakistan and the other in the U.K. Paramjit Singh Panjwar was shot dead in Lahore in early May, and Avtar Singh Khanda died in a hospital in Birmingham, just a few days before Nijjar’s killing. And while Khanda’s family said he succumbed to cancer, his supporters insisted he was poisoned. Meanwhile, TFI — a pro-Indian government portal — has suggested an indirect but significant link between these killings and RAW.
Still, Ajai Sahni, executive director of the Institute for Conflict Management in Delhi, said he doesn’t believe India has the capability, or stomach, to carry out such assassinations abroad. According to Sahni, an expert on the Sikh insurgency, Trudeau’s allegations were “irresponsible,”and the killing could be linked to an internal dispute within the Sikh separatist movement.
After all, “both countries are approaching critical national elections,’’ he said. “This is helping Modi over here, and Trudeau there.”