NEW DELHI (AP) — India on Tuesday expelled one of Canada’s top diplomats, raising 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 dismissed the allegations as absurd, said the expulsions came amid “growing concern over the interference of Canadian diplomats in our internal affairs and their involvement in anti-India activities,” its external affairs ministry said in a statement.
premier Justin Trudeau He appeared to try to defuse Tuesday’s diplomatic standoff when he told reporters Canada was “not looking for provocation or escalation.”
“We are simply presenting the facts as we understand them and we want to work with the Indian government to clarify everything and ensure due processes,” he said. “India and the Government of India must take this matter with the utmost seriousness.”
On Monday, Trudeau said there were “credible allegations” of Indian involvement in the killings Hardeep Singh Nijjar, a 45-year-old Sikh leader who was killed by masked gunmen in Surrey, near Vancouver, in June. For years, India has alleged that Nijjar, an Indian-born Canadian citizen, has links to terrorism, which Nijjar denies.
A U.S. official said Trudeau had been in contact with President Joe Biden’s administration about Canada’s findings before releasing them. The official, who was not authorized to comment publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity, said Trudeau’s willingness to talk about the matter was taken by the White House as a sign of the Canadian leader’s confidence in what was found.
Canada has yet to provide any evidence of Indian involvement, but if true, it would mark a major shift for India, whose security and intelligence services have long been major players in South Asia and are suspected of a string of killings in Pakistan. But to arrange the killing of a Canadian citizen in Canada, home to nearly 2 million people of Indian origin, would be unprecedented.
But India has for years accused Canada of giving a free pass to Sikh separatists, including Nijjar.
The dueling exclusion escalated tensions between Canada and India. Trudeau had a frosty meeting with the Indian prime minister Narendra Modi during 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 the leader of what was left of the once-powerful creation movement an independent Sikh homeland, known as Khalistan. A bloody decade-long Sikh insurgency rocked northern India in the 1970s and 1980s until it was crushed by a government crackdown that killed thousands, including prominent Sikh leaders.
Violence has spread across years and continents. In 1984, former Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was killed by two of her Sikh bodyguards after she ordered an army operation to flush out heavily armed Sikh separatists barricaded inside Sikhism’s holiest shrine. Her killing led to riots that left more than 2,000 Sikhs dead.
The next year, an Air India jet flying from Toronto to New Delhi was destroyed by a bomb over the Irish coast, killing 329 people. Officials blamed Sikh separatists.
The Khalistan movement has lost much of its political power, but it still has supporters in the Indian state of Punjab, as well as in the vast overseas Sikh diaspora. While the active insurgency ended years ago, the Indian government has repeatedly warned that Sikh separatists are trying to make a comeback.
Nijjar was wanted by Indian authorities, who offered a reward for information leading to his arrest. At the time of his killing, he was working with the group Sikhs For Justice, organizing an unofficial referendum of the Sikh diaspora on independence from India.
Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, a lawyer and spokesman for Sikhs For Justice, said Nijjar had been warned by Canadian intelligence officials that he was being targeted for assassination by “mercenaries”.
Nijjar had recently been meeting “once or twice a week” with Canadian Security Intelligence Service officers, including a day or two before the shooting, said his son, Balraj Singh Nijjar.
He said his father had received hundreds of threatening messages telling him to stop pushing for Sikh independence. The threats were always passed on to the authorities.
“We weren’t worried about safety because we weren’t doing anything wrong,” he said. “We were just exercising freedom of speech.”
He said the family was relieved by Canada’s action.
“From day one, we had an idea and we knew that if something happened to him, the Indian government would be involved,” he said. “It was only a matter of time before the truth came out. It is finally coming out that the Indian government is involved.”
On Monday, Trudeau told parliament that Canadian security agencies were investigating “credible allegations of possible links between agents of the Indian government” and Nijjar’s murder.
“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.
India’s foreign ministry dismissed the allegation as “absurd” and accused Canada of harboring “terrorists and extremists”.
“Such baseless allegations seek to divert attention from the Khalistani terrorists and extremists who have been given sanctuary in Canada and continue to threaten India’s sovereignty and territorial integrity,” the statement said on Tuesday.
India has long demanded that Canada crack down on the Sikh independence movement, which is banned in India. Canada has a Sikh population of over 770,000, about 2% of its population.
In March, the Modi government summoned Canada’s high commissioner in New Delhi, the country’s top diplomat, to complain about Sikh independence protests in Canada. In 2020, India’s foreign ministry also summoned a top diplomat over Trudeau’s comments about an agricultural protest movement linked to the Sikh-rich state of Punjab.
Critics accuse Modi’s Hindu nationalist government of trying to suppress dissent using sedition laws and other legal weapons. Some critics of his administration they were arrestedcreating what Modi’s opponents say is a culture of intimidation.
Trudeau said on Monday that he had discussed Nijjar’s killing 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.
For his part, Modi expressed “great concern” over Canada’s handling of the Sikh independence movement at the meeting, India said in a statement.
While in New Delhi, Trudeau skipped a dinner hosted by the Indian president, and local media reports said Modi was overwhelmed when he was given a swift “pull-out” instead of a bilateral meeting.
The statement called on Canada to work with India on what New Delhi described as a threat to the Indian diaspora and accused the Sikh movement of “supporting 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 broke a window of the building after India arrested a popular Sikh preacher. Protesters also smashed windows at the Indian consulate in San Francisco and clashed with consulate staff.
Meanwhile, the British government said on Tuesday it has no plans to re-investigate the death of a UK-based Sikh activist in the wake of Canada’s 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 had found nothing suspicious.
The Trudeau government’s accusations are unsettling for the UK, which is a close ally of Canada in the “Five Eyes” intelligence-sharing alliance, which also includes the US, Australia and New Zealand, and is also seeking a free trade deal with India.
“These are serious allegations. It is right that they should be dealt with by Canadian authorities,” Blain said, adding that it would not be appropriate to comment further while the investigation is ongoing.
Gillies was reporting from Toronto. Aamer Madhani in New York; Sheikh Saaliq in New Delhi; and Jill Lawless in London contributed to this report.