India and Canada are natural allies sharing democratic values, diversity and multiculturalism, burgeoning economic ties, educational and research collaboration, shared concerns and values in international diplomacy and even geopolitical considerations, especially in the Indo-Pacific. Overall, the historical goodwill and shared interests continue to be the bedrock of the India-Canada relationship, fostering a strong and enduring partnership.
However, in recent years, particularly since 2015, the ties have become strained due to mutual distrust and lack of cooperation, especially in the security domain. In April 2015, when Prime Minister Modi visited Canada, he extended a warm and gracious visit to the then leader of the mainstream opposition (Liberal Party), Justin Trudeau. India had hoped for a positive trajectory of India-Canada bilateral ties with his election in 2015. But, in 2017, Canada acquitted Inderjit Singh Reyat, the co-accused in the bombing of Air India 182 Kanishka in 1985 that killed 329 passengers and crew. In 2018, during his first visit to India, Trudeau was accompanied by Jaspal Atwal, a Khalistani separatist, who had been convicted of attempted murder in India in 1986. This removed the assumption of innocence that India had granted to the Trudeau administration regarding the Inderjit Singh Reyat incident in 2017. Naturally, this elicited strong reactions against Trudeau in India.
Things took a negative turn during Trudeau’s second term in 2021 when he established a minority government with the backing of Jagmeet Singh, the leader of the New Democratic Party. Singh is known to have sympathies towards Khalistani extremism and has attended rallies advocating for Khalistan, where some speakers have endorsed the use of political violence to separate a significant territory from the Indian Union.
At first, the Indian government was puzzled by the Trudeau administration’s consistent outreach to Khalistani extremists and their utilisation against India, even in the face of repeated objections from India. Subsequently, it became evident that Trudeau was prioritising consolidation of his domestic support base over the long-term strategic and global interests of Canada. In order to deflect criticism of his shortcomings in economic management, governance, authoritarian methods, absence of a long-term vision, strategic missteps on the global stage, and diminished reputation among international peers, Trudeau considered seeking support from Khalistani extremism to offset his declining support in other areas. This bears a resemblance to the strategies his father employed in the early 1980s, which proved electorally advantageous in short-term during his tenure, due to India’s relatively limited global influence at the time. Nevertheless, the present era is witnessing a different India of the 21st century compared to the 20th century.
Since the tangential partnership with Khalistani extremism did not suffice to consolidate the domestic constituency, Trudeau opted to act impulsively by involve himself directly in India’s domestic matters by making inflammatory and uninformed remarks about the farmers’ protest of India in 2020. In 2022, he exposed his hypocrisy by using federal emergency laws to suppress the Freedom Convoy protests against Canadians who were protesting against his vaccination policy.
Yesterday, Trudeau decided to escalate the strains in India-Canada relationship further by accusing Indian government of being involved in the assassination of Hardeep Singh Nijjar, a convicted terrorist, who was accused of involvement in multiple cases of targeted killings in Punjab and funding secessionist activities. He was associated with Babbar Khalsa International (BKI) before joining Khalistan Tiger Force (KTF) and becoming its head. It is essential to know that this case of assassination belongs to June this year and not even a single suspect has been arrested so far by the Canadian law enforcement due to lack of evidence. Yet, Trudeau and his foreign minister chose to prejudge Indian involvement, casting a shadow over the judicial process. By making such reckless statements, he undermined the core tenet of a just trial, using his position of authority to potentially sway the legal process, a phenomenon often observed in legally precarious societies. Trudeau knew what he was doing, he knew that this would severely strain the bilateral ties with India, considering there is no credible evidence available against Indian involvement. If such evidence did exist, Canadian investigators would have likely made an arrest and pursued legal action, in line with the practices of any modern democratic state. The Trudeau government’s immature move has sparked discussions on Indian social media, with many speculating whether it is a retaliatory measure by Trudeau following his recent self-induced embarrassment at the G20 summit in New Delhi.
Trudeau attempted to garner backing from his ‘five-eyes’ allies, but received only lukewarm statements of support for his government. This was likely due to his decision to publicise an investigation that has seen little to no substantial progress. Possibly, due to this apathetic response from his western partners, Trudeau has now retracted and adopted a more conciliatory stance, clarifying that his intention was not to provoke or escalate tensions with India. He expressed a strong desire for Indian cooperation, emphasising the ‘utmost seriousness’ of the matter.
By evening, the leader of Conservative party of Canada, and most likely the next Prime Minister, Pierre Poilievre, asked Trudeau to “come clean” and release more information about how he reached his conclusions linking India with the killing of Nijjar. He went further and pointed out that in contrast, Trudeau was aware of China’s foreign interference in Canadian politics but did not inform the public.
Clearly, as a way to salvage his image, Trudeau is attempting to shift domestic focus onto an external entity in order to maintain his declining popularity within Canada. As per Canadian media reports, Trudeau’s disapproval rating is now higher than his approval rating. According to the Angus Reid Institute, as of September 2023, almost 63% of Canadians disapprove of Trudeau’s job performance as Prime Minister. In an effort to secure his position, he is risking the relationship between Canada and India, which, until now, had no other issue to disrupt this inherent alliance between two contemporary democracies. This gamble to prioritise domestic power over safeguarding Canada’s long-term strategic interests in the evolving global landscape is shortsighted and detrimental to Canada’s broader interests.
India and Canada are natural partners on the wider global landscape and temporary disagreements spurred by the political aspirations of certain leaders should not be permitted to undermine the future promise of this relationship. Given the extensive connections between the populations of both nations, the diaspora should act as a bridge, rather than a source of friction, between the two sides. Hopefully, a hard diplomatic reset will be done by both sides, even if it entails making some concessions, to repair the ties and resume the paused FTA, in order to channelise, coordinate and align our efforts towards the Indo-Pacific.