Sunday, September 24, 2023

Is Canada justified in accusing India of complicity in assassination?

I've been silent so far on the announcement of "credible allegations" of the involvement of Indian government agents in the mafia-style hit on a Canadian citizen in British Columbia earlier this summer. 

The victim, Hardeep Singh Nijjar, was an outspoken activist for Khalistan separatism (the movement for a Sikh homeland in the Punjab region of India), but not, as India maintains, a terrorist. In democratic, free-speech Canada, Nijjar was an awkward, inconvenient and somewhat noisy Canadian citizen with, nevertheless, every right to make his public case for a separatist movement overseas; in authoritarian, Hindu-nationalist India, he was considered a traitor and a terrorist for even thinking of carving off a piece of the sacred Hindu state of India for a benighted religious minority like Sikhism.

Prime Minister Trudeau made his shock announcement in Parliament, hours before it would have been leaked through the Globe and Mail newspaper (which, arguably, forced his hand in making an announcement that many felt was premature). Opposition politicians, of course, are howling for more details to be made public, although this is such a sensitive issue, over which an investigation is still ongoing, so why they would expect public details at this point I am not sure. 

Politicians do not publicly accuse a major world power of complicity in extra-territorial assassinations on a whim, or even on hearsay. The country's international reputation, foreign policy and domestic security is at stake here, not to mention the Prime Minster's own electoral fortunes. There would have to be some fire behind this smoke, even if it is not apparent yet.

For its part, India, predictably enough, has expressed its outrage, and expelled a Canadian diplomat - the least they could reasonably have done. Then, they doubled down, calling Canada a "safe haven" for terrorists, extremists and "anti-India behaviour", issuing a travel advisory for Indian tourists and students, and finally closing all visa operations in Canada due to unspecified "security threats".

It does seem, though, like Canada was tipped off by one of its Five Eyes allies (i.e. USA, UK, Australia or New Zealand), as the US ambassador to Canada freely admits. But it's no surprise that they too are keeping mum, partly due to the sensitive and ongoing nature of the investigation, but partly because no-one wants to unnecessarily upset the powerful and strategic trading nation that India now is. 

Ditto for most of Canada's other Western allies, none of whom wants to stick their necks out and risk alienating an important (and, crucially, non-Chinese) Asian trade partner. Some people, intent on scoring cheap political points - looking at you, Mr. Poilievre - are making much of Canada's apparent political isolation on this matter, but you can absolutely understand why other countries are loath to get involved at this early stage, when you just stop and think about it.

So, did Trudeau jump the gun? He was between a rock and a hard place; the story would have broken anyway, and it is better to control the narrative than appear poorly-informed. While some critics are saying that he should not have stirred the hornets' nest in this way, others are complaining that he hasn't gone far enough. So, what's a PM to do?

He did the right thing by dispatching top diplomats and security service personnel to India earlier this summer to try and find some answers, and even raising the matter privately with Modi at the G20 meeting earlier this month. Canada has called on India to cooperate with its investigations, an opportunity that India seems determined to avoid. The allegations were shared with the intelligence services of Canada's other close allies, and no-one seemed to advise Trudeau against making a public statement.

Are the allegations even credible? Well, yes. India is not a meek and mild undeveloped country these days, and under the hardline Hindu nationalist zealot Narendra Modi, who has already been complicit in violence and extra-legal activity against religious minorities like Muslims, Christians and Sikhs within India, such action is entirely believable and even in character.

Extrajudicial and extraterritorial assassinations of this sort are unprecedented in Canada. We are right to be incensed, whatever the circumstances. If the Indian government is indeed as innocent as it claims, then there is no reason for India not to help in the investigation. If it persists in blustering and denying involvement without any evidence, then we all need to worry. 

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