OTTAWA: Demonstrators gather in front of the High Commission of India, on Monday.—Reuters
OTTAWA: Demonstrators gather in front of the High Commission of India, on Monday.—Reuters

THE revelation by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of ‘credible allegations’ that agents of the Indian government were behind the June 18 killing of Sikh leader Hardeep Singh Nijjar has sent shockwaves all around the globe, with Canada being the epicentre.

The announcement dominated media headlines here all of last week, adding chill to an already strained relationship between the two countries. While in India, for the G20 summit a few days earlier, Trudeau brought up the issue in his discussions with PM Modi, ‘directly and in no uncertain terms’.

The cold shoulder and the snub the Canadian PM received there is also attributed to the raising of the allegation during a bilateral ‘side meeting’.

It seems that in a bid to paint a macho and muscular image of himself, India’s Narendra Modi may have triggered some landmines.

At home, Trudeau’s handling of spat with India is seen as ‘weaker’ than his response to allegations of Chinese interference in elections

In the process, to borrow a phrase from Shekhar Gupta of The Print, Canada has been transformed in India, into the ‘new Pakistan’ or even a Pakistan Plus — responsible for everything from aiding terrorism and harbouring criminals to supporting organised crime. What a transformation!

But at home, it seems that Canadians stand united on the issue. Such a killing is ‘entirely unacceptable’, was the loud message from the House of Commons.

Immediately after the announcement by Trudeau, the leader of the opposition in the House, Pierre Poilievre of the Conservative Party, in a calibrated statement called on parliament to “put aside our differences, to stand up for the rule of law. If these allegations are true, these represent an outrageous affront to Canada’s sovereignty, he underlined.

Poilievre’s statement was significant. The previous Conservative go­­vernment in Canada under Prime Minister Stephen Harper had pursued strong bilateral relations with India. Under his leadership, ties between the two countries blossomed and Poilievre was twice a cabinet member in the Harper government.

But Trudeau’s speech in the House of Commons was not authoritative and the way he has played his cards has been questioned by some at home.

It seems the prime minister wasn’t prepared to put all of Canada’s cards on the table and his statement accusing India of involvement in the killing “was carefully crafted, to say just enough but not too much,” wrote Toronto Star columnist Andrew Phillips in an opinion piece.

Judging from the breakneck pace at which events are unfolding, however, it seems more revelations could be in the pipeline.

“We have to assume the government knows an awful lot more than it has been prepared to reveal up to now, given how far it has gone in putting relations with India in jeopardy,” Mr Phillips stressed.

While striving to tread a very fine line on the issue, the vagueness of Trudeau’s revelations continues to be debated. Just a day after showing complete unity with the government in the House of Commons, opposition leader Poilievre urged the Trudeau government to “come clean” with more information about the (Nijjar) case.

The reaction of its close allies on this issue is also being closely watched here. The vagueness of the allegations is aiding allies, including the US, to take a comparatively softer line on the issue, as compared to the harsh stance they took on China when it was revealed that Beijing has attempted to influence the outcome of Canadian elections.

To counter the impression, in a press interaction before leaving the annual UN summit in New York on Thursday, PM Trudeau had stressed: “I can assure you the decision to share these allegations on the floor of the House of Commons … was not done lightly.” Cabinet ministers also have been underlining that the situation is still evolving.

Some here feel the Canadian response to the issue of possible Chinese interference in Canadian politics was slow. Trudeau and his governing Liberals were raked over the coals by their political rivals for having intelligence that included suggestions MPs were being targeted, but doing nothing with that information.

The issue became a political firestorm, lasting several months and cooled down only a couple of weeks ago, when the government finally agreed to a public inquiry into foreign interference. Many here believe that on India, the government didn’t want to be seen through the same prism.

But not everyone was surprised by the explosive revelations, as the development had been on the radar for ‘some weeks now’. A couple of media outlets had been circling around these allegations — at least one of them — for several weeks through the summer.

The Globe and Mail had also caught wind of the allegations, says Susan Delacourt in her opinion piece in the Toronto Star. Globe‘s bureau chief Robert Fife later gave the government 24 hours’ notice of his intent to publish the India story. Some believe this may also have spurred the government into action.

The issue is delicate.

Repercussions of this evolving crisis would have reverberations for long. Globe and Mail, Canada’s only national newspaper, says there is also the need to keep the peace domestically.

There will be many Sikh Canadians who will be left shaken by Mr Nijjar’s killing; some will be enraged, and some of them may be tempted to engage in reprisals of some kind. The risk of ethnic and sectarian bloodshed in Canada is real, the newspaper said in one of its reports.

On Sunday, Chandra Arya, the lawmaker from Trudeau’s Liberal party, slammed his own government for inaction against Khalistan extremists. While talking to CBC News, he asserted that Hindu Canadians were fearful after reprisal threats issued to them.

There could be some economic consequences too. Already, trade talks with India have been suspended. As per some estimates, there are some 250,000 to 300,000 Indian students in Canada, among some of the largest avenues of funds for educational institutions in the country.

A lack of oversight on the issuance of visas to many of them has already been under the spotlight here for the last few months and the fresh episode with New Delhi may further impact the flow of Indian students to Canada.

Immigration is also an important source of labour here and Indian immigrants are the largest source of immigrant labour reaching Canada. All these could now be up for review.

Published in Dawn, September 26th, 2023

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