India-Canada Relations: In a Spiral Loop
India-Canada ties are suffering in the past few years with missteps which began with Prime Minister Trudeau’s visit to India in 2018. The trip was criticised within Canada by the Opposition and the media for not addressing issues of strengthening ties such as trade and diplomatic relations between the two nations. The invite to convicted Sikh-Canadian terrorist Jaspal Atwal to dinner, hosted by Prime Minister Trudeau during this visit was even raised in the Canadian Parliament. Mr. Atwal was convicted of attempting to murder an Indian Cabinet Minister in British Columbia in 1986, and was later charged but never convicted in the 1985 brutal beating of Mr. Ujjal Dosanjh, an opponent of the Sikh separatist movement who is an ex- Premier of British Colombia as well the former Health Minister (federal cabinet minister) in the Cabinet of Prime Minister Paul Martin. While in India, Prime Minister Trudeau had called the incident with Mr. Atwal ‘unfortunate’ oversight. However, as reported in the Canadian media, in the House of Commons in his first Question Period since returning to Canada, he blamed India for the incident. The charge was strongly refuted by the Government of India which pointed that the Indian government, including the security agencies, had nothing to do with the presence of Mr. Atwal at the event hosted by the Canadian High Commissioner in Mumbai or the invitation issued to him for the Canadian High Commissioner's reception in New Delhi.
In 2020, the Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India, summoned the Canadian High Commissioner “…and informed that comments by the Canadian Prime Minister, some Cabinet Ministers and Members of Parliament on issues relating to Indian farmers constitute an unacceptable interference in …(its) internal affairs. Such actions, if continued, would have a seriously damaging impact on ties between India and Canada.” The response came after Prime Minister Trudeau made comments on the farmer’s protests in India and stated that Canada will defend the right to peaceful protests and urged the Indian Government to engage in dialogue with the protesters. The MEA stated that “These comments have encouraged gatherings of extremist activities in front of our High Commission and Consulates in Canada that raise issues of safety and security.” The comments made by Prime Minister Trudeau were seen aimed at the domestic constituency rather than in the interest of Canada’s foreign policy. In 2021 Prime Minister Trudeau went on to call for snap elections in a bid to increase his majority in the Parliament and form a majority government. However, the Liberal Party did not win the majority and formed a minority government.
During Prime Minister Trudeau’s visit to India for the G20 Summit in New Delhi (2023), he did not attend the G20 leader’s dinner. Prime Minister Modi met his counterpart on the sidelines of the Summit and “conveyed … (India’s) strong concerns about continuing anti-India activities of extremist elements in Canada. They are promoting secessionism and inciting violence against Indian diplomats, damaging diplomatic premises, and threatening the Indian community in Canada and their places of worship. The nexus of such forces with organised crime, drug syndicates and human trafficking should be a concern for Canada as well. It is essential for the two countries to cooperate in dealing with such threats.” Vandalism of places of worship and consulate premises has become a security concern in India-Canada ties. In the past years, there have been numerous incidents of temples being vandalised, with anti-India and pro-Khalistan posters pasted on their premises. The incidents have outraged the Indian diaspora, who voiced their concerns about these incidents contributing to the growing tensions between the two religious groups. The statue of Mahatma Gandhi was also vandalised in the town of Hamilton in March 2023. A poster sparked outrage across India as it called India's High Commissioner to Ottawa and Consul General in Toronto as “killers” of the Khalistan Tiger Force chief Mr. Hardeep Singh Nijjar. India has repeatedly raised the issue of safety of its officials and the need to address such misuse of freedom of expression with Canadian authorities. Prime Minister Modi stated that, a relationship based on mutual respect and trust is essential for the progress of India-Canada relationship.
The statements by Prime Minister Trudeau, accusing the Government of India of involvement in the fatal shooting of a Canadian Sikh leader, Mr. Hardeep Singh Nijjar in June 2023, without providing any proof to substantiate the allegations, have added to the existing strained relations between the two countries. Mr. Nijjar, a supporter of Khalistani movement, was designated as a terrorist by India. The Ministry of External Affairs in its response rejected the statements made by Prime Minister Trudeau and stated, “allegations of Government of India's involvement in any act of violence in Canada are absurd and motivated. Such unsubstantiated allegations seek to shift the focus from Khalistani terrorists and extremists, who have been provided shelter in Canada and continue to threaten India’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. The inaction of the Canadian Government on this matter has been a long-standing and continuing concern. That Canadian political figures have openly expressed sympathy for such elements remains a matter of deep concern.” While Prime Minister Trudeau has stated through social media that he has raised the issue in his talks with other world leaders, nonetheless, the Government of Canada has not yet provided any credible evidence to support its accusations.
Prime Minister Trudeau and the Drift in Canada’s Foreign Policy
The issue of Khalistani terrorist organisations operating from Canadian soil continues to be a roadblock in India-Canada ties. In the latest issue, it would seem that Prime Minister Trudeau has yet again raised issues due to the requirements of domestic politics without balancing it with foreign policy needs.
The Indian diaspora in Canada is a formidable electoral bloc as Canadians of Indian heritage are estimated to comprise approximately four percent of the Canadian population. Some national; leaders including Prime Minister Trudeau have participated in Baisakhi celebrations and Khalsa Day which have glorified terrorists and their actions. Prime Minister Trudeau, through his support to such groups and their ideologies, is playing vote bank politics while stating that Canada allows for freedom of expression. What is interesting to note in the ongoing confrontation in West Asia, Prime Minister Trudeau has expressed “solidarity with, Israel in the face of Hamas’ brutal attack against Israel, and the need for Israel to defend itself in accordance with international law.” India would appreciate a similar understanding from Canada on the threats posed by the Khalisanti terror organisation to the territories integrity of India and the safety and security of its people due to the acts of terrorism that such organisations promote.
Another possible reason for the lack of action by Canada on concerns repeatedly raised by India is because Prime Minister currently heads a minority government, supported of the New Democratic Party led by Mr. Jagmeet Singh. This support is critical to ensure that the government stays in power. The NDP is being viewed as a credible opponent to Prime Minister Trudeau.
India respects the right to freedom of expression. However, it has called on Canada to take action when the freedom is misused with the intent to instigate violence against Indian officials and the State of India. There is an urgent need by Canada to understand that the pro-Khalistan separatist movement has no support in India, but has found a base on Canadian soil.
Recently, in another controversy, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had apologised on behalf of Canada's Parliament after a Ukrainian man who fought for a Nazi unit was unwittingly applauded in Parliament. Mr Trudeau also apologised directly to Ukraine's leader Volodymyr Zelensky, who was visiting Canada and present in parliament. Nonetheless, the comments by Prime Minister Trudeau have not stopped the opposition from criticising the lack of oversight by the Prime Minister’s Office.
Media reports highlight that Prime Minister Trudeau is trailing behind Conservative leader Mr. Pierre Poilievre in popularity votes. The Conservatives led the Liberals 39% to 30%, in an Ipsos poll in September 2023. Some 60% of Canadians want Prime Minister Trudeau to step down to allow Liberal Party members to pick a new leader, up 6 points compared with December 2022. Younger people, who were key to Prime Minister Trudeau’s 2015 election victory, have now moved towards the Conservatives at rates that have not been seen since the 1980s. Another survey in August 2023 found that millennials were nearly twice as likely to vote Conservative as opposed to the Liberal. Canadians aged 18 to 27 also favoured the Conservatives at a rate of 32 percent against 24 per cent for the Liberals. As Prime Minister Trudeau looks to lead the Liberal Party in the next federal elections, to be held in October 2025, he needs to address domestic concerns such as unaffordable housing, rising cost of living and economic growth while addressing the oppositions attacks that under his leadership Canada ties with nations are deteriorating.
Canada, in its Indo-Pacific Strategy aimed to “…promote peace, resilience and security in the Indo-Pacific and make meaningful contributions to the region’s security and defence and enhance its defence and security relationships with regional partners and allies.” It has also stated that it seeks deeper engagements with Asian economies. However, Canada today stands at a point where its relations with India, one of the largest countries of Asia, by size, economies and military power are frayed. This crisis has created a diplomatic row between India and Canada. The Indian Embassy has also temporarily stopped its visa services in Canada. The current strain has also meant that negotiations on the Early Progress Trade Agreement (EPTA), which was to serve as an early transitional step towards the larger Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA), have been paused. While there remain strong people-to-people ties, however, continued rise in anti-India feelings would lead to a negative perception of safety for those who are looking at Canada as a viable destination to study and work. International students, a substantial number of who come from India, pay tuition fees that are higher than Canadian students, are essential for Canada to fund its other aspects of the education system such as schools and other government-funded educational activities. Canada is also looking to attract high skill Indian migrants to work in Canada. The Indian government through an advisory (23 September 2023) has urged Indian nationals and students contemplating travel to Canada to exercise ‘utmost caution’. A diminished inflow of both students and workers would have a detrimental effect on the Canadian economy while also effecting academic collaborations. The above proves that the relations are in crisis and mutual trust stands diminished.
*Dr. Stuti Banerjee, Senior Research Fellow, Indian Council of World Affairs, New Delhi.
The views expressed are personal.
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Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India, 28 February 2018 “Official Spokesperson's response to a query on invitation to Jaspal Atwal,” http://www.mea.gov.in/media-briefings.htm?dtl/29522/Official_Spokespersons_response_to_a_query_on_invitation_to_Jaspal_Atwal, Accessed on 17 October 2023.
Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India, “Demarche made to the Canadian High Commissioner to India 04 December 2020,” https://www.mea.gov.in/press-releases.htm?dtl/33257/Demarche_made_to_the_Canadian_High_Commissioner_to_India, Accessed on 17 October 2023.
Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India, “Prime Minister's meeting with the Prime Minister of Canada 10 September 2023,” https://www.mea.gov.in/press-releases.htm?dtl/37097/Prime_Ministers_meeting_with_the_Prime_Minister_of_Canada, Accessed on 17 October 2023.
The Economic Times, 12 September 2023“A tale of two Trudeaus and Canada's mollycoddling of Khalistani terror,” https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/india/a-tale-of-two-trudeaus-and-canadas-mollycoddling-of-khalistani-terror/articleshow/103583278.cms?from=mdr, Accessed on 17 October 2023.
Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India, “India rejects allegations by Canada 19 September 2023,” https://www.mea.gov.in/press-releases.htm?dtl/37125/India_rejects_allegations_by_Canada, Accessed on 17 October 2023.
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The Ministry of External Affairs advisory can be accessed on https://www.mea.gov.in/press-releases.htm?dtl/37129/Advisory+for+Indian+Nationals+and+Indian+Students+in+Canada#:~:text=Ministry%20of%20External%20Affairs%20Government%20of%20India&text=Recently%2C%20threats%20have%20particularly%20targeted,that%20have%20seen%20such%20incidents.