New Adversaries

India’s recent standoff with Canada is rooted in its reluctance to deviate from its time-honoured ideological standpoint.

By Taha Kehar | November 2023

In an essay titled ‘The Sikhs,’ the late Indian author and commentator Khushwant Singh wrote that it was “suicidal of Sikhs to demand Khalistan.” Published in Absolute Khushwant -- a compendium of his non-fictional pieces -- the essay explores how the “violence of the Khalistanis” defied the tenets of Sikhism and brought the peace-loving Sikh community into conflict with Hindus. ‘On the 1984 Riots’, another piece in the collection, presents haunting recollections of the “bloodbath” and pogroms against the Sikh community. The anti-Sikh massacre was fuelled by the assassination of the then Indian premier Indira Gandhi, which was an act of revenge for a military operation against Sikh dissidents carried out in Amritsar’s Golden Temple.

Singh’s essays were penned decades after the pogroms, at a time when support for the ethno-religious liberation movement in India had diminished. Even so, separatist sentiments have continued to hold sway among the Sikh diaspora in Australia, Canada, the UK and the US. The sympathetic attitude shown towards the demand for Khalistan by some segments of the Sikh diaspora has proved to be a cause for concern for the Indian state. In June 1985, Canadian-based Sikh fighters bombed an Air India flight, carrying 329 passengers. For years, India has urged the relevant authorities in Australia, Canada and the UK to curb the activities of these Sikh separatist elements.

The prevailing climate of hostility between the Indian authorities and the pro-Khalistan diaspora activists is pedalled by ideological differences that are difficult to bridge. As a result, there is no plausible scope for deciding on a clear-cut winner or loser as both parties are reluctant to compromise on their fundamental values.

India’s recent standoff with Canada is also rooted in its reluctance to deviate from its time-honoured ideological standpoint. Fuelled by the desire to quash separatism at its core, the BJP-led Indian government allowed itself to react with hostility to Canada’s sincere request for cooperation regarding the murder of Sikh activist Hardeep Singh Nijjar In June 2023.

In September 2023, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced that his government was investigating “credible allegations” over the possible involvement of Indian intelligence agencies in Nijjar’s murder. If taken at face value, the statement carries the devious undertone of an accusation and merits a strong, vociferous response. However, Trudeau’s remarks shouldn’t be construed as full-blown criticism of the Indian authorities. Instead, the Canadian premier’s statement must be interpreted in a positive vein and viewed as an attempt to seek India’s support in the probe surrounding Nijjar’s murder. India -- which prides itself on being the world’s largest democracy -- should have reined it its knee-jerk reaction and opted for a more conciliatory approach to the matter. On the contrary, the Canadian government’s investigation was deemed ‘absurd’ and possibly perceived as blanket support for the Khalistan movement. The issue was, therefore, egregiously blown out of proportion and misrepresented as a calibrated attack on India’s sovereignty. Trudeau’s remarks weren’t geared towards provoking a cold war with India and igniting a diplomatic controversy. On the contrary, they were a glaring reminder that the Canadian justice system cannot make any compromises on upholding the rule of law. Nijjar was a Canadian citizen who was killed on Canadian soil and his murderers need to be brought to justice.

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