Global Agenda

The assassination of a Sikh community leader caused a serious diplomatic conflict between Canada and India and showed the fragility of the American-led coalition against China

Pavol Beblavý

On September 18, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau indirectly accused the Indian government of the June assassination of Sikh separatist leader and Canadian citizen Hardeep Singh Nijjar. The Indian government has denied the accusations and has forced Canada to withdraw most of its diplomats from the country under threat of having their diplomatic immunity revoked. Ottawa, in turn, expelled the diplomatic envoy of India’s intelligence agency RAW in Canada. Negotiations for signing a key trade deal between the two countries were also suspended, and the diplomatic rift is not over to date.

In 1984, Indian armed forces intervened against Sikh separatists in the state of Punjab. These separatists aimed to establish an independent Sikh Turkati state of Khalistan. The military intervention, known as Operation Blue Star, caused a widespread insurgency in this region of India, which affected tens of thousands of the region’s inhabitants. Separatist movements lost popularity in the early 1990s, and Punjab has long been a stable region. However, a notable portion of the Sikh diaspora, primarily concentrated in Canada, continues to advocate for the independence of Khalistan.

Hardeep Singh Nijjar was considered the leader of the Sikh separatists in Canada. Nijjar first achieved prominence in the Canadian-Sikh community in 2019 when he became the leader of a Sikh temple in Surrey, British Columbia. Nijjar strongly supported the idea of Sikh separatism and organised protests against Indian state officials. Because of this, he has long been a thorn in the side of the Indian government of Narendra Modi, whose Hindu nationalism is directly at odds with the idea of Khalistani independence. India has officially labelled Nijjar a terrorist and has long criticised the Canadian Government for its reluctance to extradite him and his supporters to India. The assassination of Nijjar took place in June 2023, and the perpetrators were two as yet unidentified gunmen.

Canada refuses to disclose the sources on which it holds the Indian government responsible for the assassination. It is doing so for obvious reasons of security of top secret information. It is, therefore, impossible to assess the credibility of these accusations. Still, the involvement of Indian intelligence agency RAW in the assassination, at least in part, is plausible, given Nijjar’s hostility with India. As part of the rift, India expelled Canadian diplomats; in response, Canada expelled the RAW chief in Canada. Both sides have restricted or cancelled consular services and communications with each other. The current rift appears to be short-lived and unlikely to escalate dramatically. This is because the attention of Western governments has already managed to shift to the conflict between Israel and Hamas. The Canadian government has also been forced to reassess its priorities in light of these developments. At the same time, Indo-Canadian relations have already managed to normalise partially, and the two countries have also managed to restore consular services to each other at least partially.

The incident, however, hints at the difficulties that the anti-China coalition in the Indo-Pacific may face. The US, which has taken a subtly pro-Canadian stance in this dispute by pressuring the Indian government to cooperate in the assassination investigation, is trying to build a coalition of liberal (Japan, Canada, Australia, South Korea) and illiberal (India, Vietnam, Philippines) states against China. In this case, Washington is inevitably playing a primarily neutral role in order to avoid alienating India while retaining Canada’s support. It is imperative for the US to maintain friendly relations with New Delhi because of India’s growing importance as a counterweight to China in the region. This incident has shown that the interests of the two blocs within the anti-China coalition are not always identical, and individual governments may even be willing to carry out covert operations on the territory of their allies. Covert operations, violations of national sovereignty and mutual recriminations inevitably damage trust, and the fragile anti-China coalition could be significantly weakened by similar incidents in the future. There is also the risk that China could actively exploit this vulnerability, for example, through false flag operations.

The Latest