A senior Canadian diplomat has been ordered to leave India within five days, the Indian foreign ministry said, hours after Ottawa expelled an Indian diplomat in an escalating rift over the killing of a Sikh separatist earlier this year.
New Delhi’s decision reflected its “growing concern at the interference of Canadian diplomats in our internal matters and their involvement in anti-India activities”, the ministry said in a statement on Tuesday.
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The duelling expulsions come as relations between Canada and India are tense. Trade talks have been derailed and Canada just cancelled a trade mission to India that was planned later this year.
Protests by pro-Sikh independence groups in Canada have angered Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government.
Ottawa on Monday said it was “actively pursuing credible allegations” linking Indian government agents to the murder of Sikh separatist leader Hardeep Singh Nijjar outside a cultural centre in Surrey, British Columbia on June 18.
Nijjar was reportedly organising an unofficial referendum in India for an independent Sikh nation at the time of this death.
India dismissed the Canadian accusation as “absurd and motivated” and urged it to instead take legal action against anti-Indian elements operating from its soil.
Sikh separatist movement
Last year, the Indian authorities announced a cash reward for information leading to Nijjar’s arrest, accusing him of involvement in an alleged attack on a Hindu priest in India.
The Sikh independence movement, commonly referred to as the Khalistan movement, is banned in India, where officials see it and affiliated groups as a national security threat. But the movement still has some support in northern India, as well as countries such as Canada and the United Kingdom, which are home to a sizable Sikh diaspora.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told the parliament on Monday he brought up Nijjar’s killing with Modi at the Group of 20 (G20) summit in New Delhi last week. He said he told Modi that any Indian government involvement would be unacceptable and that he asked for cooperation in the investigation.
“Any involvement of a foreign government in the killing of a Canadian citizen on Canadian soil is an unacceptable violation of our sovereignty,” he said. “In the strongest possible terms, I continue to urge the government of India to cooperate with Canada to get to the bottom of this matter.”
On Tuesday, the MEA released a statement dismissing the allegation and saying Trudeau had made similar allegations to Modi.
“Such unsubstantiated allegations seek to shift the focus from Khalistani terrorists and extremists, who have been provided shelter in Canada and continue to threaten India’s sovereignty and territorial integrity,” the statement said, referring to the proposed autonomous Sikh homeland.
Canadian Foreign Minister Melanie Joly said a top diplomat, who she said was the head of Indian intelligence in Canada, was expelled as a consequence.
“If proven true, this would be a great violation of our sovereignty and of the most basic rule of how countries deal with each other,” Joly said. “As a consequence, we have expelled a top Indian diplomat.”
Canada has a Sikh population of more than 770,000, or about 2 percent of its total population.
Hartosh Bal, executive editor of The Caravan magazine in India, told Al Jazeera the Sikh separatist movement has been non-existent for decades but the Modi government has “consistently hyped up” the Khalistani threat to India.
“The Khalistani movement has a long history and during the 1980s, there was a violent military movement on Indian soil. But ever since – at least in India, in the state of Punjab, where the Sikhs are the majority – the Khalistan movement has been virtually non-existent, enjoys no political support and goes up and down depending on the attention the Indian government pays to it,” Bal said.
“This attention has gone up considerably since the Modi government came to power in 2014. It does have strong roots both in Canada and the UK, where things like referendums are held, but given that the vast majority of Sikhs are on Indian soil and are not participants in this referendum, these could have ideally been easily ignored,” he added.
Bal said the Khalistan issue suits Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) domestically to talk about security threats to the nation, “rather than the actual measure of threat on the ground from the movement”.
Nijjar spoke of ‘threat to his life’
Canadian opposition New Democrat leader Jagmeet Singh, who is himself Sikh, said he grew up hearing stories that challenging India’s record on human rights might prevent you from getting a visa to travel there.
“But to hear the prime minister of Canada corroborate a potential link between a murder of a Canadian citizen on Canadian soil by a foreign government is something I could never have imagined,” Singh said.
Today we learned of allegations that agents of the Indian Government murdered Hardeep Singh Nijjar — a Canadian killed on Canadian soil.
To all Canadians, this is my vow.
I will leave no stone unturned in the pursuit of justice, including holding Narendra Modi accountable.
— Jagmeet Singh (@theJagmeetSingh) September 18, 2023
British Columbia Premier David Eby said he received a briefing from Canada’s spy agency about the “assassination” of Nijjar and he was “deeply disturbed” by what he was told.
The World Sikh Organization of Canada called Nijjar an outspoken supporter of Khalistan who “often led peaceful protests against the violation of human rights actively taking place in India and in support of Khalistan”.
“Nijjar had publicly spoken of the threat to his life for months and said that he was targeted by Indian intelligence agencies,” the statement said.
Nijjar’s New York-based lawyer, Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, has said Nijjar was warned by Canadian intelligence officials about being targeted for assassination by “mercenaries” before he was gunned down, The Associated Press news agency reported.
Indian authorities have targeted Sikh separatism since the 1980s, when an armed rebellion for an independent Sikh state began in Punjab state.
In 1984, Indian forces stormed the Golden Temple in the state’s Amritsar city to flush out Sikh separatists who had taken refuge there. The controversial operation killed about 400, according to official figures, although Sikh groups estimate the toll to be higher.
The prime minister who ordered the raid, Indira Gandhi, was assassinated afterwards by two of her bodyguards who were Sikh. Her death triggered a series of anti-Sikh riots, in which Hindu mobs went from house to house across northern India, pulling Sikhs from their homes, hacking many to death and burning others alive.
Modi’s government has intensified the pursuit of Sikh separatists. When farmers camped out on the edges of New Delhi to protest against proposed agriculture laws in 2021, Modi’s government initially tried to discredit Sikh participants by dismissing their concerns by calling them “Khalistanis”.
Police also arrested a 22-year-old climate activist for supporting the protesting farmers and accused her of being in touch with Sikh independence supporters.
Earlier this year, supporters of the Khalistan movement vandalised Indian consulates in London and San Francisco. In April, Indian police arrested a leader who had become popular for speeches that called for an independent Sikh homeland after a monthlong hunt.