The India-Canada diplomatic showdown is likely to carry on for some time despite behind-the-scenes efforts by the United States to douse the flames and prevent more damage to the West’s strategic goal of using India as a bulwark against China’s assertive rise in Asia.
Minister of External Affairs Subramanyam Jaishankar is in Washington at the moment for talks with his US counterpart Antony Blinken. The killing of Khalistan leader Hardeep Singh Nijjar, a designated terrorist, will certainly be on the table.
The Biden administration is on a bit of a sticky wicket here as it deals with Canada, a close ally, and India, which is a new partner Washington has been wooing to checkmate Chinese moves in the Indo-Pacific region.
The English-speaking nations of the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom have a close intelligence alliance. Way back in 1941, it was an informal arrangement between the United States and the UK. After World War II, the cooperation continued and expanded to include Australia and New Zealand as well. The Five Eyes —as the intelligence arrangement was called— has remained intact and has now naturally expanded beyond the old wireless code-breaking arrangement to become a much more sophisticated version of it. The point here is that Canada is one of the closest allies of the United States and Washington cannot turn a blind eye to the explosive accusations made by Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
Nor has the United States done that. It is clear that the United States was in the know from the beginning and President Joe Biden Biden like Trudeau had raised the subject with Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the G20 Summit in Delhi earlier this month.
US Secretary of State Blinken also said, “We are extremely vigilant about any instances of alleged transnational repression, something we take very, very seriously. And I think it’s important more broadly for the international system that any country that might consider engaging in such acts not do so.”
India has vehemently denied the Canadian accusation and has asked to be shown solid evidence to prove its point. Much will depend on what the Canadians are able to present. Surprisingly, so far no arrests have been made over the killing of Nijjar, who was killed in June in Canada’s British Columbia province.
But for the progressive wing of Biden’s Democratic party, which is already chaffing over the administration papering over India’s human rights record, Trudeau’s accusation could be additional ammunition to force the White House to call out India. And in the run-up to next year’s elections, Biden, whose popularity is waning, can hardly antagonise an active wing of the party that can help swing young voters. For Biden, who had started his presidency with the promise of bringing back human rights and liberal values to US foreign policy, it is a tough ask to balance the needs of geopolitics with the commitment to bring back morality and human values to the White House. Former President Donald Trump was criticised for not paying heed to any of this.
“I think we are only part way into this situation, so it is hard to see how it might develop. Of course, the US will continue to work with India as a strategic partner, but there was a vigorous debate in Washington about how closely to work with India before this episode and the sceptics will get more vocal if strong evidence emerges of Indian involvement. Put bluntly, the US would like India to be a Japan —a strong capable partner that plays by the rules— and not a Saudi Arabia or a Turkey,” says Ian Hall, Professor of International Relations at the Griffith Asia Institute, Australia.
If the Canadians can conclusively prove that the Indian government was involved in the killing of Nijjar, it will be a major embarrassment for Modi. However, it is playing out well among many Indians, especially those supportive of a strong and decisive leader. Though no one has pointed fingers at India for this, the fact is that in May, Paramjit Singh Panjwar, head of the Khalistan Commando Force (KCF), was shot dead by two unidentified gunmen in Lahore, Pakistan. In June, Avtar Singh Khanda the UK and associated with the Khalistan Liberation Force (KLF) was suspected of death by poisoning.
In fact, seeing the campaign to kill him riding full-swing, Nijjar wrote an open letter to Trudeau saying: “Because of my campaign for Sikh rights, it’s my belief that I have become a target of an Indian government media campaign to label my human rights campaign as terrorist activities.”
After Nijjar was killed, US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) agents visited several Sikh activists in California where they are active to warn them of danger to their lives, according to The Intercept, an online American non-profit news organisation. However, they were not told who could be behind the threat or if any foreign hand was involved.
Pritpal Singh, a political activist and a US citizen, who is a coordinator for the American Sikh Caucus Committee, told The Intercept that he and two other Sikh Americans involved in political organising in California received calls and visits from the FBI after Nijjar’s killing.
Singh told The Intercept, “They did not tell us specifically where the threat was coming from, but they said that I should be careful. I was visited by two FBI special agents in late June who told me that they had received information that there was a threat against my life. They did not tell us specifically where the threat was coming from, but they said that I should be careful.”
India has stopped issuing visas to Canadian citizens, but so far Canada has not retaliated. India is taking a tough stand and is confident that despite the current noise over the killings, the United States and its allies will not abandon New Delhi — much like India did at the beginning of the Ukraine War when it played both sides despite enormous pressure from the West to condemn Russia. Apart from Modi telling Russian President Vladimir Putin that “this is not an era for war”, New Delhi did nothing more. He was cheered lustily by the West for his remark. India has succeeded in having its cake and eating it too. Russia is now the largest crude oil supplier to India, replacing the traditional Gulf countries. And the oil comes at a reasonable price.
The United States has invested enormous time and energy to build relations with India because of the threat from China. None of that will be jeopardised by the current India-Canada diplomatic tussle. Washington would have to play both sides and work behind the scenes to diffuse the crisis. Yet some analysts differ.
London’s Financial Times quoted Derek Grossman, a defence analyst at the Rand Corporation as saying: “I’m concerned that if the India-Canada imbroglio continues to escalate, then we could see Western nations begin to choose sides, and it is likely to be Ottawa [that wins], placing New Delhi’s partnerships with countries like the US, Australia, and UK in greater jeopardy…The rationale would be that Modi and his BJP government are simply untrustworthy."