Canada’s dispute with India has the potential to get very messy very quickly.
Last week, Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau claimed his country’s intelligence services had uncovered “credible allegations” that India was behind the gunning down in June of Hardeep Singh Nijjar in the car park outside a Sikh temple in a suburb of Vancouver.
The Indian government has described Canada’s accusations as “absurd and motivated”, adding that Ottawa is seeking to “shift the focus from Khalistani terrorists and extremists, who have provided shelter in Canada and threaten India’s sovereignty and territorial integrity”.
It is an extraordinary spat and one that other countries are doing their level best not to get drawn into.
Jake Sullivan, President Biden’s national security adviser, has said the allegations are a “matter of concern”. Downing Street’s official response is that it doesn’t want to “get ahead” of any investigation.
It’s unlikely such studiously neutral statements will be sufficient. Over the weekend it emerged in a New York Times report that intelligence shared by the US with Canada had contributed to Trudeau’s public allegation that India had played a role in the Sikh activist’s murder.
At this point there are really only two possibilities: either Canada has committed an enormous diplomatic gaffe based on flawed US intelligence or India has something to hide.
With the stakes so high and the dispute so resolutely out in the open it is hard to see how the two countries might be able to engineer an elegant climbdown even if there was the appetite to do so.
It is equally hard to imagine how other countries will be able to resist being sucked into the quarrel. They will certainly try though. Many Western countries have expended a huge amount of time and energy in courting India in recent months.
Western politicians are hoping to secure access to India’s burgeoning market and fast-growing economy.
They also want to hasten the rise of what is now the world’s most populous country in the hope that it will become a second economic centre of gravity to rival China in the Indo-Pacific region.
Earlier this year President Biden invited Narendra Modi to address both Houses of US Congress. More recently, President Emmanuel Macron asked India’s prime minister to attend Bastille Day celebrations as guest of honour, despite Le Monde branding the gesture a “miscalculation”.
In pursuing their agenda, Western politicians have chosen to overlook the fact that New Delhi has refused to unequivocally condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and has busily increased its imports of Urals oil at knock-down prices since the imposition of Western sanctions against Moscow.
Western governments have also faced criticism for turning a blind eye to accusations that Modi’s brand of Hindu nationalism has resulted in anti-Muslim chauvinism and an undermining of national institutions – accusations that New Delhi strongly denies.
Canada’s sensational claims will likely place additional focus on such realpolitik.
Certainly, neither Ottawa or New Delhi appear likely to back down any time soon. Canada is home to nearly 800,000 Sikhs, including Jagmeet Singh, the leader of the New Democratic Party, which is in coalition with Trudeau’s Liberal Party.
Modi, for his part, paints the pro-Khalistan movement, of which Nijjar was a vocal proponent, as an existential threat to India’s very existence.
Calls for the creation of an independent Sikh homeland gathered force in the 1970s and peaked in deadly clashes with Indian security forces in Punjab and the assassination of prime minister Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguard in 1984.
The issue has been a stumbling block in Canada-India relations for years. Indeed, Indira Gandhi raised the issue with Pierre Trudeau, Justin’s father, when he was Canada’s prime minister in 1982.
In 1985 a Khalistani separatist group blew up an Air India flight from Montreal, killing 329 people in the worst terrorist attack in Canada’s history.
Today, the pro-Khalistan movement appears to have little traction within India but retains some hold among the Sikh diaspora around the world. These communities are mainly concentrated in Canada, the US, the UK and Australia – four of the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing alliance.
New Delhi remains convinced Ottawa is not doing enough to stop those that India accuses of being terrorists; Canada counters that pressure groups should be free to express their views as long as they do so peacefully.
Observers noticed that at the recent G20 meeting in New Delhi, most foreign leaders were picked up at the airport in either a Mercedes or an Audi but Trudeau was met by an old Toyota. If the insult was calculated to keep the Canadian prime minister quiet it didn’t work.
He raised concerns about Nijjar’s murder with Modi “personally and directly”. The official Indian readout from the meeting accused Canada of being a “nexus” of religious militancy, “organised crime, drug syndicates and human trafficking”. Trade talks between the two countries are – unsurprisingly – on ice.
Clearly, there is lots that remains unknown about this case. But the fact that two erstwhile friendly nations are trading such caustic blows means that there has already been a huge failure of diplomacy.
Even if only rhetorically, India’s approach to foreign policy in general and its campaign against active supporters of militant separatism based abroad has stepped up several notches.
If it turns out there’s any basis to Canada’s claims, Western powers will have to totally reassess their assumptions. Part of India’s appeal as a rival to China is that it is a democracy that respects the rule of law.
Those countries with large Sikh communities – the UK included – will have to tread extremely carefully, especially in the febrile atmosphere that will undoubtedly build ahead of India’s next general election in May.
Foreign affairs experts say there are growing suggestions that New Delhi believes London is not taking India’s concerns about the perceived issue of Khalistani radicals seriously.
This may be one of the reasons why trade talks between the two countries have stalled and why Rishi Sunak’s planned meeting with Modi on the eve of the G20 summit was abruptly cancelled.
There is still a great deal that the West doesn’t fully understand about India. It had better start learning quickly.