This article originally appeared in the Indian Express.
By Karthik Nachiappan, September 22, 2023
Canada-India relations are at their lowest ebb. Justin Trudeau’s bombshell statement to Parliament on Monday, implicating Indian agents in the June slaying of Khalistani activist Hardeep Singh Nijjar, has plunged the already tense bilateral relationship to its nadir.
Diplomats have been expelled from both countries. Little hope exists over reconciliation, which will now require both sides to have a serious, open, and layered political dialogue over Canada’s Indian diaspora, their transnational activism, and the effects of this activity on Canada-India relations.
The current impasse is precipitated by Nijjar’s murder, allegedly by Indian operatives (as of Sept. 22, the prime minister has yet to offer any actual evidence of their involvement). Yet this entire mess is rooted in a toxic form of diaspora politics that involves Canadian political parties engaging with and appeasing groups and their favoured policies toward their respective countries of origin (due, of course, to the value these communities provide come election time).
Indo-Canadian diaspora politics is nothing new. Canada-India relations have see-sawed over the last fifty years, over which time the number of Canadians of Indian origin has grown exponentially. During the Cold War, bonhomie developed between Ottawa and New Delhi from their shared membership in the Commonwealth of Nations (i.e.: former British colonies) and common preference for United Nations-led multilateralism, especially concerning global development. Subsequent differences over Cold War crises in Korea, Hungary, and Vietnam placed early strains on this relationship. India’s fledgling nuclear program further tested bilateral ties.
During the 1980s, Ottawa’s interest in India was kindled by an influx of Indian expats to Canada. However, with limited prospects for trade or security relations, there was little basis, at the time, for meaningful diplomatic engagement. The relationship hit a low point in 1998, when Canada refused to recognize India as a nuclear power.
Canada-India relations have rebounded somewhat since then as the latter has emerged as one of the world’s fastest-growing economies. Investment and trade opportunities formed the heart of the rebooted relationship. Unfortunately, these issues and other matters of critical importance are held hostage by specific diaspora elements that harbour a deep hatred toward India, abhor its territorial unity, and strive to balkanise it into mutually hostile ethnostates.
Canada has a diaspora problem
Trudeau’s allegations are troubling and unprecedented. Founded or not, accusing another G20 state of dabbling in extrajudicial executions is a game-changer. According to the official narrative, Canadian agencies were receiving and corroborating intelligence of India’s involvement in Nijjar’s assassination before raising the issue with Indian officials last week. India’s rejection (and public rebuke of Canada for sheltering anti-India extremists) possibly led to Trudeau’s escalation of rhetoric, kick-starting a new parliamentary session with this explosive claim. It is inconceivable that relevant intelligence was not vetted thoroughly before such ‘accusations’ were made. That Trudeau made such a public announcement in parliament before adequately exploring other options suggests Canadian officials would have had sufficient evidence backing their claims or, more troublingly, that Trudeau had no qualms deep-sixing Canada-India relations.
That said, Trudeau’s references to the ‘rule of law’ are myopic as they elide consideration of the effects Nijjar and his separatist clan had through their activities in both Canada and India. That some of them were propagating violence against Indian diplomats was largely swept under the rug. Those concerns still exist and are possibly heightened by this news. That some of them were brazenly celebrating the assassination of a former Indian prime minister at a parade was condemned in some circles, but not widely. Politicians across Canada even went so far as to endorse the circumvention of Indian lawmaking processes through the farmer protests last summer in India.
Lest we forget, Khalistani separatists bombed Air India 182 38 years ago, claiming 329 lives in the worst terrorist act in Canadian history. Trudeau’s ‘rule of law’ pronouncements ring hollow when he highlights the plight of Khalistani activists and turns a blind eye to the fates of those they have harmed.
Ottawa’s confounding deference to Khalistani groups and other militant diaspora elements has permeated its foreign policy, particularly through the Trudeau years. To be sure, all three major parties – Liberals, Conservatives and NDP alike, have pandered to diaspora groups that use Canadian soil to undertake activities that threaten the interests and territorial integrity of other countries.
This pernicious form of diaspora politics has prevented Canadian governments from ring-fencing national security and foreign policy priorities from short-term electoral pressures. That must change. Diaspora politics cannot just be the lever through which Ottawa perceives and engages New Delhi.
India also has a diaspora problem
The views of pro-Khalistan groups have vexed the Indian government. No stranger to separatist politics, New Delhi has disdained transnational currents that undermine its territorial integrity or deride its treatment of ethnic and religious minorities. Those currents are only accelerating, creating a major problem for an Indian foreign policy that has strategically viewed most diaspora groups and the public goods they bring India.
Diaspora engagement has intensified under the Modi government, with efforts made to compel Indian expats to invest in the homeland’s economic development, concurrently leveraging the (Hindu) diaspora’s support to consolidate the BJP’s political dominance. Wealthy NRIs are key vectors of remittances, networks, and ideas into India.
Undoubtedly, the diaspora’s cultivation and support has advanced India’s strategic ties with the United States and propelled national projects like Make in India and Digital India. Yet, there’s an unseemly dimension to this engagement that requires deft handling and management.
Increasingly, Modi’s foreign visits are met by civil society groups clamouring for human rights. Recent pro-Khalistan protests in the US, UK, Canada, and Australia have become rancorous and violent. Caste discrimination is becoming a fraught fault line across US firms, universities, and organisations. Digital technologies have transformed how Indian immigrants abroad engage and share ideas with their kin back home. How ideas related to these matters spread online could have repercussions across borders, as we have seen through the Khalistani case. The risks of diaspora groups are magnified and amplified in a social media age. New Delhi has to refrain from relying on bromides that highlight engaging and deploying the Indian diaspora to serve national interests. Some diaspora groups targeted through the initiatives actively work against the interests of the Indian state and foreign policy.
It will be hard to mend the rift between Canada and India that was torn open this week. Distrust dates back decades. So do ethnocultural resentment and grievances. Without India, Ottawa’s Indo-Pacific strategy looks to be dead-in-the-water.
One possible saving grace is that both countries share ‘big picture’ interests in defending the international order, balancing China’s rise and behaviour, cooperating on issues like climate change, global health, misuse of digital technologies, regulating artificial intelligence, and lifting up developing countries. But dealing with these challenges requires a political compact that addresses how both countries view Canada’s Indian diaspora and mitigating its worst impulses, particularly those fanning separatist embers in India. Without such a compact, Ottawa and Delhi’s great distance will be measured not just by geography but disposition.
Karthik Nachiappan is a senior fellow at Macdonald-Laurier Institute and a research fellow at the National University of Singapore.