Harsh V Pant
Trudeau may have rolled the dice but India will now have a big role in determining how it falls.
There is a surreal quality to the whole episode as India-Canada relations hit rock bottom after Canadian Prime Minister (PM) Justin Trudeau linked India to the murder of Khalistani terrorist Hardeep Singh Nijjar, a charge that New Delhi termed as “absurd”. This allegation by Trudeau has exposed the fundamental fault line in the bilateral relations between the two nations, resulting in tit for tat diplomatic expulsions, travel advisories being issued by the two, Canada deciding to reduce the number of personnel in its embassy in India and India deciding to suspend issuing of visas to Canadian citizens.
Arguing that “the decision to share these allegations was not done lightly” but “was done with the utmost seriousness”, Trudeau has urged New Delhi to cooperate with the investigation into the killing. But he has so far refused to divulge any evidence to back up his claims. For its part, New Delhi has underlined that it is “willing to look at any specific information that is provided to us” but “so far we [Indian government] have not received any such specific information”. Instead, India has pointed out that “very specific evidence of criminal activities by individuals based on Canadian soil has been shared with the Canadian authorities on a regular basis but not been acted upon”.
India Vs Canada
And therein lies the crux of the problem. For New Delhi, this issue has been building up for some time and the Indian response has been a patient one, repeatedly asking Ottawa to take action against those individuals and groups who have been openly inciting hatred against India and its citizens. There were Khalistani protests outside Indian missions and consulates in Canada earlier this year followed by a float depicting the assassination of former PM Indira Gandhi in a rally. After Nijjar’s killing, pamphlets describing Indian diplomats as “killers” were circulated by extremist organisations.
As a friend and partner, New Delhi waited for some action from the Trudeau government. All it got were sermons on freedom of expression. Therefore, when unsubstantiated allegations were made in the Canadian parliament, India rightfully saw this as a move 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”.
New Delhi, with its words and actions, is clearly indicating that it has no intention of backing down. The mood against Trudeau is so strong that it has united a highly polarised Indian polity. There are three reasons for India’s confidence that it can confront Canada on this issue. First, India is aware of the costs of mollycoddling extremists and separatists.
Much before others, it was Sikh extremism in Punjab that challenged India’s sense of national identity and led to a massive schism in the society and the polity. That the Khalistan movement has little resonance in India today is a function of both its no-nonsense approach to sovereignty and its vibrant democracy that allowed the Sikh community to find solace and its own space.
Second, Canada’s irresponsible behaviour has given New Delhi a unique opportunity to expose to the world the long-standing problem in Canada when it comes to dealing with extremism. India had long been complaining to Ottawa that several criminals and extremists get safe havens in Canada which eventually become launch pads to target India. Trudeau’s Liberal Party’s sympathies with groups espousing extremist views are now there for all to see. When Trudeau talks of the rule of law and justice, India can turn the spotlight back on him and ask some difficult questions about Canada’s own conduct.
Third, and perhaps most significant, while Canada has its own Five Eyes Alliance which binds it closely with the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand, India has been able to build strategic partnerships with several global players and is central to the emerging global balance of power. What in the past would have been an easy choice for western nations is not a simple matter anymore as the centre of gravity of global politics seems to be moving away from the West.
India’s centrality in the Indo-Pacific makes a strong relationship with New Delhi a veritable strategic necessity for most nations wanting to have a stake in the evolving geopolitics. There is a reason why after sulking for a few years post his disastrous visit to India in 2018, Trudeau decided to engage India on a trade pact and the Indo-Pacific dynamic. And it is the same reason why he is struggling to get a full-throated endorsement of his claims against India from some of its closest allies.
This is not to say that if Trudeau can bring to bear some concrete evidence, things won’t change, or that Indian diplomacy doesn’t have challenges to deal with. This is just to underscore whether it is about raw interests or values, New Delhi today can take on Ottawa in ways that would not have been possible in the past.
As India and Canada try to find a new balance in their bilateral relations, both should remember that there is so much that binds them but it is for Ottawa to know that if it decides to go for broke, New Delhi has enough cards to play. Trudeau may have rolled the dice but India will now have a big role in determining how it falls.
Harsh V Pant is vice president, Studies and Foreign Policy, Observer Research Foundation. The views expressed are personal.
The article was first published in Hindustan Times as India and Canada on the global chessboard on September 25, 2023.
Disclaimer: All views expressed in the article belong solely to the author and not necessarily to the organization.
This article was posted by Mansi Garg, a researcher at IMPRI.
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