NEW DELHI – India on Tuesday expelled one of Canada’s top diplomats, igniting confrontation between the two countries over Canadian allegations that India may have been involved in the killing of a Sikh separatist leader in suburban Vancouver .
India, which has dismissed the allegations as absurd, said the expulsion came amid “growing concern over the interference of Canadian diplomats in our internal affairs and their involvement in anti-India activities,” according to a statement from India’s ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau appeared to try to calm the diplomatic row on Tuesday, telling reporters that Canada “has no intention of provoking or escalating.”
“We are simply laying out the facts as we understand them and we want to work with the government of India to make everything clear and ensure that proper processes are in place,” he said. “India and the Indian government must take this matter with the utmost seriousness.”
On Monday, Trudeau said there were “credible allegations” of Indian involvement in the killing of Hardeep Singh Nijjar, a 45-year-old Sikh leader who was killed by masked gunmen in Surrey, outside Vancouver, in June. For years, India has said that Nijjar, an Indian-born Canadian citizen, has links to terrorism, a claim Nijjar denies.
A U.S. official said Trudeau had been in contact with the Biden administration about Canada’s findings before raising them publicly. The official, who was not authorized to comment publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity, said Trudeau’s willingness to speak out on the matter was taken by the White House as an indication of the Canadian leader’s certainty about what is happening was found.
Canada has not yet produced any evidence of Indian involvement, but if true it would mark a major change for India, whose security and intelligence arms have long been key players in South Asia and are suspected of a number of murders in Pakistan. But staging a massacre in Canada, home to nearly two million people of Indian descent, would be unprecedented.
However, India has been accusing Canada for years of giving Sikh separatists, including Nijjar, a free hand.
The dueling expulsions have escalated tensions between Canada and India. Trudeau had frosty encounters with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi at this month’s Group of 20 meeting in New Delhi, and a few days later Canada canceled a trade mission to India planned for the fall.
Nijjar, a plumber, was also a leader in what remains of a once-strong movement to create an independent Sikh homeland known as Khalistan. A bloody decade-long Sikh insurgency shook northern India in the 1970s and 1980s until it was crushed by a government crackdown that killed thousands of people, including prominent Sikh leaders.
The Khalistan movement has lost much of its political power, but still has followers in the Indian state of Punjab, as well as in the significant overseas Sikh diaspora. Although violence is now rare and it has been years since the active insurgency ended, the Indian government has repeatedly warned that Sikh separatists were trying to make a comeback.
Nijjar was wanted by Indian authorities, who offered a reward for information leading to the arrest of the Sikh activist, who worked with a group known as Sikhs For Justice to organize an unofficial Sikh diaspora referendum on India’s independence at the time of his assassination. .
Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, a lawyer and spokesman for Sikhs For Justice, has said Nijjar was warned by Canadian intelligence officials that he would be targeted for assassination by “mercenaries.”
Niijar’s son, Baraj Singh Nijjar, said Tuesday that his family and the Sikh community were relieved by the Canadian actions.
“From day one we had the idea and the knowledge that if anything happened to him, the Indian government would be involved,” he said. “It was only a matter of time before the truth would come out. It is finally becoming clear to the public that the Indian government is involved in this.”
On Monday, Trudeau told parliament that Canadian security services were investigating “credible allegations of a possible link between agents of the Indian government and the murder of a Canadian citizen.”
“Any involvement by a foreign government in the murder of a Canadian citizen on Canadian soil is an unacceptable violation of our sovereignty,” he said.
India’s foreign ministry dismissed the accusation as “absurd” and accused Canada of harboring “terrorists and extremists.”
“Such baseless allegations seek to divert the attention of Khalistani terrorists and extremists, who have taken refuge in Canada and continue to threaten India’s sovereignty and territorial integrity,” it said in a statement on Tuesday.
India has long demanded that Canada take action against the Sikh independence movement, which is banned in India. Canada has a Sikh population of over 770,000, approximately 2% of the population.
In March, Modi’s government summoned the Canadian high commissioner in New Delhi, the country’s top diplomat, to complain about the Sikh independence protests in Canada. In 2020, India’s foreign ministry also summoned the top diplomat over Trudeau’s comments on an agricultural protest movement linked to the state of Punjab, where many Sikhs live.
Critics accuse Modi’s Hindu nationalist government of suppressing dissent using sedition laws and other legal weapons. Some critics of his government have been arrested, creating a culture of intimidation, according to Modi’s opponents.
Trudeau said on Monday that he had raised Nijjar’s murder with Modi at the G20 meeting in New Delhi last week, telling him that any involvement by the Indian government would be unacceptable and asking for cooperation in the investigation.
Modi, for his part, expressed “major concerns” at that meeting about Canada’s approach to the Sikh independence movement, India’s statement said.
While in New Delhi, Trudeau skipped a dinner hosted by the Indian president, and according to local media reports, was rebuffed by Modi when he was quickly ‘pushed aside’ in lieu of a bilateral meeting.
The statement called on Canada to work with India on what New Delhi says is a threat to the Indian diaspora, and accused the Sikh movement of “promoting secessionism and inciting violence” against Indian diplomats.
Earlier this year, Sikh protesters pulled down the Indian flag at the Indian High Commission in London and smashed the building’s windows after India arrested a popular Sikh preacher. Protesters also smashed windows at the Indian Consulate in San Francisco and clashed with consulate staff.
Some analysts in India questioned whether Canada had evidence of Indian ties to Nijjar’s killing, and whether Trudeau was trying to drum up support among Canada’s Sikh community.
“Such a charge against India by a G7 country is unprecedented. The Canadian government has deliberately made a spectacle of it to please its domestic constituency among the Sikh diaspora,” said KC Singh, a former Indian diplomat.
The British government said on Tuesday there are no plans to re-investigate the death of a British Sikh activist in the wake of Canadian claims that India may have been behind Nijjar’s killing.
Avtar Singh Khanda, who played a prominent role in the protests for an independent Sikh homeland, died in June in the English city of Birmingham after falling ill. Supporters may have been poisoned, but Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s spokesman Max Blain said police found nothing suspicious.
The Trudeau government’s allegations are painful for Britain, which is a close ally of Canada in the “Five Eyes” intelligence-sharing alliance, which also includes the US, Australia and New Zealand. pursue a free trade agreement with India.
“These are serious allegations. It is right that Canadian authorities are investigating this,” Blain said, adding that it would be inappropriate to comment further while the investigation is ongoing.
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