India-Canada diplomatic row: A history of ties going south

By Sarwar Kashani

New Delhi, Sep 19 (EFE).- India and Canada’s diplomatic ties touched a new low on Tuesday amid a raging rift ostensibly over Sikh separatism that has allegedly found roots in the North American country, home to over 770,000 Sikhs, or about 2 percent of the total population.

The two countries expelled two senior diplomats from their respective countries, dealing a fresh blow to ties that had worn thin for years.

The ties between the two member states of the Commonwealth of Nations started deteriorating when Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was on an India tour in 2018.

Hours before his meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi in February 2018, India’s external affairs ministry objected to the Canadian high commissioner inviting a Sikh extremist, Jaspal Atwal, convicted of having links with a Sikh militant group, to a dinner in honor of Trudeau in New Delhi.

The eight-day visit turned out to be an absolute fiasco with Trudeau and his family flying home and leaving behind frosty ties with India.

In 2020, as the ice over the ties was yet to melt, Trudeau vociferously criticized India for handling months-long peasant protests, calling it “concerning” and defending “the rights of peaceful protesters.”

India shot back and asked Canada to stop interfering in its internal affairs, calling Trudeau’s remarks “ill-informed” and “unwarranted.”

In July 2020, India accused Canada of allowing a “designated Sikh terrorist,” Hardeep Singh Nijjar of Indian origin, to promote anti-India activities on Canadian soil.

The Indian government alleged that Nijjar headed a pro-Sikh separatist group, Khalistan Tiger Force, seeking an independent country for Sikh minorities in the northern state of Punjab, which witnessed a bloody insurgent movement in the 1980s and early 19902 that left tens of thousands of people dead.

In June this year, Nijjar was shot dead by two masked gunmen in the parking lot of a Sikh temple in Surrey, Canada, sparking allegations by Sikh groups that Indian diplomats had orchestrated his assassination.

India vehemently criticized Canada over a float that appeared in a parade depicting the 1984 assassination of Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by her bodyguards. New Delhi said the float glorified violence by Sikh separatists.

Close on the heels of Nijjar’s killing, Sikh groups in Canada organized several controversial referendums for a separate Khalistan state in India. New Delhi claimed that Ottawa was giving a free hand to anti-India Sikh separatists.

A referendum was held when Trudeau was in India for the G20 Summit earlier this month.

Trudeau’s trip to India again turned out to be a fiasco. He skipped a dinner hosted by the Indian president for G20 leaders in New Delhi on Sep.9.

Modi did not hold bilateral talks with Trudeau and extended more frostiness in ties even as the two spoke briefly on the sidelines of the G20 event, with India raising concerns over Canada not acting against Khalistani protesters.

The Canadian leader told a press conference on the sidelines of the G20 meet in New Delhi that his government would always defend “freedom of expression, freedom of conscience, and peaceful protest.”

As the tensions grew, Trudeau was stranded for two extra days in New Delhi after his plane hit a technical snag.

Earlier, Canada had paused talks on a proposed trade treaty with India, three months after the two countries had hoped to seal an agreement this year to bring a thaw in the ties.

On Monday, Trudeau told the Canadian parliament his government was investigating “credible allegations of a potential link between agents of the government of India and the killing of a Canadian citizen”, Nijjar. Hours later, Ottawa expelled a top Indian diplomat, who headed the Indian intelligence in Canada.

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