Colombo, September 22 (Counterpoint): The India-Canada rift over the assassination of the Sikh separatist Hardeep Singh Nijjar in Canada allegedly by Indian agents is set to widen unless the only country that can mediate, the United States, steps in urgently to do so.
A ray of hope about the two countries cooling appeared when both toned down their stand a wee bit by Thursday.
After making a thundering statement in the Canadian parliament alleging that Indian agents had murdered a Canadian citizen on Canadian soil, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said that he was “not looking to provoke or escalate”. All that he wanted to do, he said, was “to work with the government of India to lay everything clear and to ensure there are proper processes.”
In New Delhi on Thursday, the spokesman of the External Affairs Ministry, Arindam Bagchi, said that India is ready to discuss the allegation if Canada gives “specific information” about India’s alleged involvement in Nijjar’s killing.
Bagchi then added that Canada has “not” given any “specific information” about the killing although the issue was discussed by the two governments earlier.
In the meanwhile, despite the toning down, the two sides continued to take actions against each other. Both countries have expelled a senior diplomat. If Canada called off trade talks, Indian missions in Canada stopped issuing visas to Canadian nationals citing security concerns after some extremist elements threatened Indian diplomats. As Trudeau secured the endorsement of his allies the US, UK and Australia for his allegations against India, New Delhi decided to ask the Canadian mission to prune its staff on a reciprocal basis. A travel advisory to Indian nationals warning them of stack by extremist elements was also issued.
If the situation does not improve fast enough, and Canada’s allies (including India’s strategic partner, the US) do not prevail upon Trudeau to show restraint, the possibility of India’s inviting US President Joe Biden to be the Chief Guest at the Republic Day parade in New Delhi on January 26, 2024, will recede.
New Delhi is unlikely to revise its contention that it was not involved in Nijjar’s murder. On the other hand, it has unequivocally accused Canada of harbouring anti-India terrorists and criminals wanted in India and for political reasons encouraging anti-Indian actions by the Sikh extremists including issuing menacing threats to its diplomats.
New Delhi will have no difficulty in establishing its case because it has pursued this issue with Canada since 1982 even before Canada-based Sikh terrorists bombed Air India’s plane in 1985 killing 300 plus passengers.
As for Trudeau, he will lose political capital at home (already said to be dwindling as per opinion polls) if his allegation against India is proved wrong.
The Indian government can ill-afford to be seen as an offender without losing face internationally and losing political capital at home on the eve of State Assembly and parliamentary elections lined up in the next few months.
Prime Minister Modi’s personal position is at stake in his bid for a third term in the May 2024 parliamentary elections.Modi’s carefully crafted political image as a leader of the Global South will be in tatters if India, under his watch, is bracketed in the Western democracies with Russia and China that eliminate their dissidents living abroad.
The emerging scenario does not augur well for a rapprochement, unless a big power like the US steps in to mediate. An opinion piece in Global Times, the Chinese communist party organ, says that the US will mediate if only to keep India on its side in its conflict with China. Washington’s stake in a relationship with India is higher than Canada’s.
But the American stand thus far has not been helpful. On Monday, the White House’s National Security Council spokesperson Adrienne Watson said: “We are deeply concerned about the allegations referenced by Prime Minister Trudeau earlier today. We remain in regular contact with our Canadian partners. It is critical that Canada’s investigations proceed and the perpetrators be brought to justice.”
“It is something we take seriously. It is something we will keep working on. And we will do that regardless of the country,” said Jake Sullivan, US National Security Advisor.
“There’s not some special exemption you get for actions like this. Regardless of the country, we will stand up and defend our basic principles.”
He also aggressively pushed back on media reports suggesting that the U.S. had declined to defend Canada on the matter.
“I have seen in the press some efforts to try to drive a wedge between the U.S. and Canada on this issue. I firmly reject that there is a wedge between the U.S. and Canada,” he said.
Western countries argue that they, as democracies, are committed to allowing the expression of community rights even at the cost of eroding the sovereignty of another country. But this will wear thin in the face of India’s bold and unambiguous assertion that Canada’s tolerance and covert encouragement of separatist activities aimed at it is tantamount to invading its sovereignty.
Costs for Canada
If India stands to lose its newfound Western allies in its faceoff with China, Canada could lose the economic clout it is trying to build in the Indo-Pacific region where India is a key player.
According to a Canadian government document, the Indo-Pacific region will play a “critical role” in shaping Canada’s future over the next half-century. The region represents “significant opportunities for growing the economy here at home, as well as opportunities for Canadian workers and businesses for decades to come.”
“Every issue that matters to Canadians—including our national security, economic prosperity, respect for international law, democratic values, public health, protecting our environment, the rights of women and girls and human rights—will be shaped by the relationships Canada and its allies and partners have with Indo-Pacific countries.”
“The region’s economic dynamism and population growth are driving demand for education, health services, food, agriculture and fisheries, natural resources and critical minerals, energy, financial services, advanced manufacturing and green infrastructure. These are all sectors of Canadian strength, in which Canada has a global reputation for excellence. In the infrastructure sector alone, there is an estimated $2.1 trillion opportunity for strategic investments and partnerships in the Indo-Pacific. Seizing these and other strategic opportunities will help safeguard Canada’s economic security, build our future prosperity and help create good, well-paying jobs.”
On India’s place in this scheme, the document says that Canada “will grow economic ties, including through deeper trade and investment, as well as cooperate on building resilient supply chains with India.”
“It will seek to expand market access by concluding an Early Progress Trade Agreement (EPTA) as a step toward a Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement.”
Recognizing India’s strategic importance, the document said that “India’s strategic importance and leadership—both across the region and globally—will only increase as India—the world’s biggest democracy—becomes the most populous country in the world and continues to grow its economy.”
Canada needs to attract more immigrants to survive and grow as its population is too small and ageing. Fertility is below the population replacement level.
India has been a significant contributor to immigration in Canada. According to Xavier Delgado of the Wilson Centre, any reduction in the flow of Indian immigrants, who constitute almost one in five of all recent immigrants to Canada, could be “devastating.”
Canada recently reached the 40-million-population milestone and that needs to grow. Indian immigration to Canada has tripled since 2013, overtaking the flow from the Philippines and China to become the top source for new Canadians in the 2021 census. That census counted 1.3 million ethnic Indians in Canada.
If Indian immigration continues at the present rate, immigrants could become 29.1 to 34.0 percent of the population of Canada by 2041.
It is in this context that it will be unwise for Canadian politicians to play the ethnic, anti-India card and encourage violence and criminal activities as these fill stall Indian immigration.
As the Ministry of External Affairs spokesman Arimdam Bagchi pointed out on Thursday, the allegation of murder levelled against India is basically “political”. It is vote bank politics to be precise.
Seen for what it is, the allegation is expected to come unstuck. Trudeau and Canada will be the losers, and not India, as Western commentators glibly proclaim.