Two Views: Canada, India & An “Inconvenient” Assassination?

Nicholas Kristof
Nicholas Ktistof

Father’s Day this year, two heavyset men were loitering near a Sikh temple in British Columbia. Then the president of the temple, a Canadian citizen and an activist named Hardeep Singh Nijjar, stepped out and climbed into his pickup truck to drive home for dinner with his family.

The two waiting men, wearing masks, fired through Nijjar’s window about a dozen times. Temple members bravely ran after the gunmen, who escaped in a getaway car driven by a third man.

Now Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada has publicly asserted that the Indian government may be responsible for murdering Nijjar — an explosive allegation that, if found to be true, should be a warning to Western countries in their dealings with Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his increasingly authoritarian government. India denies the accusation and calls it “absurd.”

The target: Hardeep Singh Nijjar

In his initial statement, Trudeau was cautious and spoke of “credible allegations of a potential link” between the murder and the Indian government. But in a visit to The New York Times on Thursday, Trudeau seemed completely confident that the Indian government had been involved.

While Trudeau would not share the evidence tying the crime to India, I’m betting it’s solid. Nijjar, who was born in India, advocated a separatist state called Khalistan to be carved from Punjab, a proposal that infuriates many Indians because in the 1980s the campaign for it involved terrorism. In 2020, India labeled Nijjar, without evidence, as a terrorist and later offered a cash reward for information leading to his arrest.

Trudeau is seeking to work with India on an investigation of the incident, but the Modi government has escalated the tension. It stopped issuing visas to Canadians and ordered Canada to cut its diplomatic staff in India.

This episode should be a warning to Western leaders, including President Biden, who have fawned over Modi. The last couple of decades of travails with Vladimir Putin should have taught us something about the difficulties of trying to reform nationalist authoritarians, or the perils of granting them impunity.

“If we, as we do, want India to continue down its path of democracy, of successful rising world power, we need to make sure we are clear about the responsibilities and the expectations that come with that,” Trudeau added.

The paradox is that Nijjar doesn’t seem to have been any threat to India today. There was a violent separatist movement supporting Khalistan in the early 1980s, and I met its leaders when I was a law student backpacking through India then and sleeping on the floor of the Sikh Golden Temple to save money. But that movement has fizzled, and the dream of Khalistan seems more alive in the Sikh diaspora than in India itself.

If India is caught lying about its role in the killing, it will have damaged its international standing far more than Nijjar ever could have.

In this case, though, Modi isn’t showing any sign of investigating and seems to be trying to profit politically, by inflaming the prickly nationalism that has carried his career forward so far. He portrays himself as defender of India’s Hindu majority from Muslim jihadis or Sikh separatists — or sanctimonious Western imperialists — and this dust-up might actually help him in next year’s Indian elections.

Modi is a complicated figure. He is one of the most popular leaders in the world today, and as I wrote during a visit to India earlier this year, he deserves credit for economic pragmatism and significantly raising living standards. But Modi’s government has also made India less free, cracking down on the press and stirring a fiery Islamophobia that has led to Muslims being lynched. I worry that, like the Pakistani general Mohammad Zia ul-Haq almost half a century ago, he is unleashing religious extremism that could ultimately destabilize his country.

India is so important that other nations will be tempted to avert their eyes and not get involved in Canada’s quarrel with Delhi. In 2018, in response to a Russian assassination on British soil, the United States expelled 60 Russians, and 14 European countries took similar steps; that won’t happen this time. But we shouldn’t give assassins a pass just because they come from a country we’re courting.

To its credit, the Biden administration did support Canada and called on India to cooperate in the murder investigation — although it would help if this came publicly from Biden himself. Elsewhere, there has been mostly silence and fecklessness: Australia’s prime minister declined to comment at all, and Britain’s foreign secretary tweeted pablum that did not even mention India.

Without prejudging the results, Western countries should categorically stand with Canada in calling for a fair investigation of the murder and justice for those responsible. The current international silence is conspicuously loud.

Canadians deserve better from us, and so do Indians.

2. Hard to choose: Canada and the Quad

By Gwynne Dyer — Sept. 21, 2023

First Prize: Two Fabulous Days in Beautiful Delhi!
Second Prize: Four Days in Delhi!

Having to wait an extra two days in Delhi after the G20 while the Canadian armed forces fixed a plane to bring Prime Minister Justin Trudeau home was not really a catastrophe, but there was clearly something else wrong.

The Canadian media made the usual fuss about the delay, of course, because it gave them something to write about. (They always need something to hold the ads apart.) But the Indian media were also writing about it, with local TV channels and news websites running reports about the “snubbed” Canadian prime minister’s “disastrous” trip.

That was bizarre because the travel arrangements of Canadian prime ministers are not normally big news in India. The Indian media had obviously been tipped off by the government that Canada was now an enemy whose misfortunes were to be celebrated. A week later it became clear why.

On Monday Justin Trudeau told parliament that India was suspected of involvement in the murder of a Canadian Sikh activist three months ago in Vancouver. Hardeep Singh Nijjar ran a plumbing business in the suburb of Surrey, but he grew up in the Sikh-majority state of Punjab in northwest India during the heyday of the violent Khalistan separatist movement.

He fled to Canada in 1997 and became a citizen in 2015, but he remained active in Sikh nationalist politics and India undoubtedly saw him as an enemy. The Canadian Security Intelligence Service reportedly warned him that he was “under threat from professional assassins,” and that proved to be true.

The hit was done by two masked men, probably local contract killers, near a gurdwara (temple) in Surrey on June 18. Who paid them? A rival plumbing firm? Islamist fanatics? After due consideration, Canada’s security forces concluded that it was the senior intelligence officer at the Indian High Commission in Ottawa.

He has been duly expelled from Canada. The Indian government, predictably, called the accusation “absurd” and expelled a Canadian diplomat tit-for-tat. Normally, there would then be a period of silent sulking before normal relations resumed.

This sort of thing happens all the time. Prince Muhammad bin Salman ordered the murder, dismemberment and disposal of Saudi dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul. Turkey’s President Recep Tayyib Erdogan waited four years before visiting Saudi Arabia again. Joe Biden even waited another ten weeks after that.

Russian exiles are poisoned in England by Moscow’s agents with monotonous regularity, and the British government doesn’t even hit “pause” on the relationship. Or at least it didn’t until the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and even now the Russian embassy in London is still open.

So why should the assassination of a Sikh-Canadian in Canada on the orders of New Delhi cause such a fuss, assuming that this was actually the case, which is a pretty high probability?

Because of the timing. Specifically, because of the Quad.

Three other major powers with interests in Asia — the United States, Japan and Australia — are currently engaged in a complicated courtship of India. The mating dance is called the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or “Quad,” and the suitors hope that it will end up as a military alliance that will “contain” China.

The “Quad” Flags: USA, India, Australia, and Japan.

India is interested because it sees China as its major rival, but it has been “non-aligned” for generations so it’s moving slowly. Now Canada, with close ties to all three of India’s suitors, is in a confrontation with India over some stupid murder they don’t really care about. It might even have been the rogue decision of a single Indian intelligence agent.

Canada’s friends and allies have all murmured strong support. But you can tell that they really wish the whole thing would just go away. India will never apologize or even admit wrongdoing, because great states, like four-year-olds, simply don’t do that sort of thing. But if Canada could see its way clear to letting the issue just fade away…

Trudeau can’t do that, because he has his own domestic politics to worry about. Once the security agencies pointed their fingers at India, he had to act or the opposition would have crucified him. That kind of information always gets out. He has to go on “defending Canadian sovereignty” for the same reason.

Gwynne Dyer

Good, because even though Canada is not directly involved in the “Quad” project, such a confrontation may delay or even sabotage the whole idea. It is a thoroughly terrible idea because the last thing Asia and the world needs is a huge new military alliance “containing” China.

The Chinese are paranoid enough as it is, and the “end of growth” in China is going to make that a lot worse. Don’t stoke the flames.

Gwynne Dyer’s new book is ‘The Shortest History of War.’

One thought on “Two Views: Canada, India & An “Inconvenient” Assassination?”

  1. This is a particularly timely article, and an important argument against military alliances that can lead to escalation of hostilities. The most recent and bloody example of course, is Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, probably most provoked by Ukraine’s desire to join NATO an anti-Russian military alliance. Invasion and aggression are never right, but increasing pressure on a country, with leadership that need propping up with militaristic acts internally and externally, has demonstrated how security pressures in one region can threaten the entire world.

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