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The Assassination Allegations that Undermined Indo-Western Partnership

Updated: Oct 10, 2023

By Reuben Bye

On September 18, Justin Trudeau, Canada’s Prime Minister, announced that he had seen evidence suggesting that the Indian government was responsible for killing Hardeep Singh Nijjar, a Canadian citizen on Canadian soil. He was shot dead by two masked men in his truck outside a Gurdwara (Sikh temple) in suburban Vancouver on June 18 2023. In response to the accusation, Prime Minister Modi declared the allegations “absurd” and “motivated”, and the Indian government has flatly denied any involvement.

Hardeep Singh Nijjar and The Sikh State

Nijjar was a prominent advocate for an independent Sikh state known as Khalistan in northwestern India. Between 2014 and 2022, he had been accused of multiple terrorist activities by the Indian government, including accusations of leading the Khalistan Tiger Force militants and involvement in killings in India. Nijjar and his lawyers maintained that he was the subject of a smear campaign for political dissent. He claimed to support the Khalistan movement through peaceful means, such as petitions, protests and spreading awareness of human rights abuses against Sikh communities in India.

Support for Khalistan was most significant in the 1980s when Sikh militants fought an armed insurgency against the Indian state and have since declined domestically. Amongst the Sikh diaspora, primarily concentrated in Canada, the US, the UK and Australia, support remains significant. This has led to the Indian government accusing foreign governments of not being tough enough on extremist activities, perceiving supporters of this movement as a threat to national security and unity. They have cited lax responses to Khalistani supporters as a potential barrier to good relations.

Impact on Indo-Western Relations

These new tensions come at a crucial time for Western geopolitical policymakers who view India as a counterweight to China and as America completes its pivot to Indo-Pacific-focused foreign policy. Such accusations put closer economic and security ties with India at risk by forcing Western governments to respond. Should the allegations be false, it would become a serious international embarrassment for the Trudeau government, which is already lagging in the polls with an election on the horizon. But if found to be accurate, the West must find a balance between condemning a gross violation of sovereignty and maintaining good relations with their new partner.

At the time of writing, no evidence has been published by Canada, and investigations are ongoing. Such a lack of public evidence is fuelling the idea that this may primarily be an attempt by Trudeau to boost his Liberal Party’s popularity and has been echoed by voices within the ruling BJP party in India and some within the Canadian Conservative opposition. Whilst possible, given the absence of proof, such a theory lacks substance. To levy serious accusations against such a major actor on the world stage is inherently problematic. It risks current and future ties with the planet’s fifth-largest economy (and potential up-and-coming superpower) and entangles Canada’s closest allies. Trade deal negotiations and visa processing for Canadian citizens have been halted, and India has warned its citizens travelling to Canada to exercise caution.

Not-So-Perfect Allies

Canadian allies— with whom evidence has been shared— have also failed to dismiss the claims. Fellow Five Eyes intelligence network members (USA, UK, Australia and New Zealand) have expressed concern and urged India to engage in the investigation, even if they have stopped short of condemnation. If this was an electoral ploy, then it is doubtful that other governments would risk their strategic ties with India for Trudeau. It has also been confirmed by the American ambassador to Canada that part of the evidence was provided by the USA through the Five Eyes network. While not necessarily confirming the assassination allegations, the combination of real economic cost and wider allied engagement reveals the unlikelihood of vote-grab theories - even if it was, it is yet to show any polling reprieve for the Liberal government.

Irrelevant of Nijjar’s killing, the recent spat highlights tensions between India and its Western partners. Western politicians have been eager to overstate their relationship with India— fellow democracies united in a growing rivalry with authoritarian China, a union exemplified by a spate of trade negotiations, Modi’s addresses to the US Congress and the development of the Quad defence partnership. The most profound and stable international partnerships are those based on shared values since states can share long-term visions and build trust. A common threat in the form of China is bound to keep the two close, but a difference in values remains under-recognised.

India has long been sceptical of Western claims of global leadership and promotion of liberal democracy, often perceiving the post-war system as one full of neo-colonial dynamics. If the assassination is proven, it would clearly demonstrate a lack of respect for the ‘rules-based international order’ constantly touted by Western leaders. Domestically, too, India does not resemble a liberal democracy. Under the Hindu-nationalist ideology of the BJP, the country has experienced democratic backsliding reminiscent of Hungary or Turkey. India has experienced increased discriminatory policies and a decline in press freedom. At present, it is not the kindred liberal democracy the West may wish to see in either the domestic or international arena.

Expectations for the West

If Nijjar was assassinated, Western governments would likely be reluctant to react to Canadian concerns due to fears of losing out on lucrative economic cooperation and strategic partnership, but a lack of consequences would encourage future violations of sovereignty, which would undermine international norms. Aggressive Chinese actions will likely cause India and the West to remain close partners, but if the West is serious about upholding its claimed liberal values, it has the prerogative to call out Modi to prevent similar future incidents. Its response is an opportunity to discourage Modi’s more authoritarian instincts by stressing that allies do not kill each others’ citizens as it will hinder relations. If proven, the West should condemn this killing as a gross violation of Canadian sovereignty and highlight the extent to which it values its own principles, even if they are not always shared.

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