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Explaining the latest flare-up between India and Canada

The assassination of a Sikh leader in Canada is the latest flare-up in a decades-old conflict in India. The situation at present threatens to do irreparable diplomatic damage to both countries.

When Justin Trudeau landed in Delhi for the G20 summit he came prepared to face tensions with Modi head-on after accusing India of being involved in the murder of Canadian Sikh leader, Hardeep Singh Nijjar.

On June 18, Nijjar was shot 34 times in the parking lot of a Gurdwara (Sikh temple) in British Columbia by two masked assailants. The assassination set off a domino of diplomatic disputes between Canada, India, and the US.

Nijjar was the leader of a Sikh community and President of the Guru Nanak Sikh Gurdwara for two terms. He also led the Canadian Sikhs for Justice and supported the Khalistan movement – a movement effectually banned in India but supported by Sikh separatists.

The Indian government, threatened by Nijjar’s activities alleged that he was a leader of a pro-Khalistan militant group and had Interpol issue red notices against him on two separate occasions.

India and the Khalistan movement

The Khalistan movement is a separatist movement that seeks to create an independent Sikh state carved out of the Indian state of Punjab. It has its roots in the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947, and has led to several insurgencies in the 1970s and 1980s.

India has long called out the movement for being a security threat. Actions by former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, who coordinated an act of violence in a Sikh temple, led to her assassination by her Sikh bodyguards.

Although the Khalistan movement has little support within India, it is held up by Sikh diaspora communities in countries such as Canada and the UK. The conflict between Canada and India is exacerbated by India’s concerns that the former has glorified the assassination of Gandhi via a float during a parade.

The Indian government has long conveyed its concerns about ‘extremism’ such as the harassment of Indian diplomats in Ottowa. During the G20 summit, Modi reportedly pulled Trudeau aside to criticize his handling of Sikh protests, especially after the assassination of Nijjar.

Political tensions among allies

According to US Ambassador David Cohen, the dots to the recent allegations were connected with the help of intelligence gathered by the ‘Five Eyes’. This alliance is comprised of Australia, New Zealand, Canada, the United States, and the United Kingdom.

A Canadian official even confirmed the origins of the information to a major ally in the group but did not explicitly state which.

The United States, an ally of both Canada and India, is caught in the middle of this feud – the escalation of which may destabilize relations between the US and both countries, given its strong economic and security ties.

Given the US and Canada are amongst India’s biggest trade partners, there could be tariffs or other trade restrictions imposed if the situation goes awry.

On the note of security, further conflict could lead to a dysfunctional Quad – a security alliance formed by Canada, India, Japan, and the US. Increased tension among India’s diaspora communities in the US and Canada, where there is a large Sikh population, is a further possibility.

The US is apprehensive that the conflict could impair the Indo-Pacific region, where India is a key American partner. A destabilized Indo-Pacific would give China more influence in the region and could divide US allies.

US Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken mentioned that he urged the Indian government to cooperate with Canada on the investigation to prevent any repercussions on an international stage.

Present developments

In response to Modi’s criticism of the protests, Trudeau responded with the right to ‘freedom of speech’ but said that he would push back on any ‘hatred’.

After the intelligence of the assassination came to light, Canada put a pause on trade treaty talks with India on September 1st. Moreover, Canada said that it would postpone a trade mission in October all in light of ‘political developments’.

In the aftermath of Trudeau’s claim, India spoke out on its ‘anti-terrorism’ policies. From politicians of opposing parties to the media, India has defiantly called out the absurdity of the allegations. The nation even went as far as to condemn Canada by calling it a ‘safe haven for terrorists’.

The Indian media has gone to lengths to portray Canada in a bad light, saying things like, it is a nation ‘of rising drug addiction and a slew of highly concerning medical policies’. Moreover, it has pivoted from talking highly of the West to calling out its hypocrisy through the involvement of countries like the US.

Experts say that Modi’s previous electoral victories were primarily due to his image as a strong leader based on how he handled conflicts with Pakistan.

They believe that this feud with Canada could similarly help him win the upcoming elections. Walter Ladwig, a professor of International Relations at King’s College London, mentioned the notion of the stand-off being ‘exploited for domestic gain’.

With opposing stances, the conflict has the potential to spiral into detrimental lengths for both nations and their allies. The only hope to prevent a major diplomatic setback is a peaceful resolution that, as of yet, is not forthcoming.