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In India, Modi the Winner over Canadian Sikh’s Death
Delhi refuses to accept responsibility, accuses Canada of being “safe haven”
By: Jyoti Malhotra
In reaction to the furor over the death in Canada at the hands of masked gunmen of Sikh Canadian leader Hardeep Nijjar, India has accused Canada of being a “safe haven for terrorists, extremists, and organized crime,” unusual abuse often employed by dictators and demagogues who commonly subvert the rule of law, instead of two articulate democracies that have just exchanged notes in their capacity as members of the G20 club of richest economies.
So when Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau stood up in the House of Commons Monday to say that there were “credible allegations” that there existed a “potential link” between “agents of the government of India” and Hardeep’s, the Indian government reacted with cold fury.
The Canadians expelled an Indian intelligence officer from the Indian high commission in Ottawa earlier this week as punishment, so Delhi expelled the Canadian intelligence chief in Delhi in retaliation. Ottawa issued an advisory and dubbed any travel to India as risky. India first responded with a tit-for-tat travel advisory, then used the pretext of disturbed working conditions in its consulates to temporarily suspend all visas to India.
Certainly, this is the first time in India’s history since it became independent in 1947 that India has been accused by a foreign government, save Pakistan, of organizing a hit job against a foreign national on foreign soil.
It will probably take several years to repair the relationship between India and Canada, and even then there may not be full trust. At a press conference in New York on the margins of the UN general assembly Thursday, Trudeau spoke bravely about the rule of law, but refused to answer any questions about when, where and why his government had accused India of carrying out the alleged hit job.
Arindam Bagchi, the spokesperson of the ministry of external affairs, at his weekly press conference decided he would turn the knife a little. Accusing the Canadian government of being “prejudiced” against India, Bagchi said, “to us it seems that these allegations by the government of Canada are primarily politically driven,” he added.
Bagchi may have hit a raw nerve. Trudeau’s minority government is held in place by Jagmeet Singh’s New Democrat Party, whose political support keeps Trudeau going. Jagmeet, a turbaned Sikh himself, has made no effort to hide his spite for Prime Minister Narendra Modi. He is clearly hugely popular with Canada’s small but influential Sikh community, which constitutes only 2 percent of so of the country’s 40 million population.
In the aftermath of Trudeau’s speech at the House of Commons, Jagmeet Singh tweeted, “To all Canadians, this is my vow. I will leave no stone unturned in the pursuit of justice, including holding Narendra Modi accountable.”
The suspension of visas for Canadian travelers is only the latest weapon employed by India, which seeks to defend itself from the charge of killing Nijjar in June this year. The Sikh leader was sitting outside his gurudwara in Surrey, a small town in British Columbia, when two men of “thick-set build” pumped a few bullets into him and escaped in a waiting vehicle.
Nijjar, of course, was no ordinary Canadian citizen who quietly lived with his wife and two sons. He was the head of the Sikhs For Justice (SFJ) organization in Canada which continues to openly promote the idea of “Khalistan”, a secessionist movement which seeks a separate state carved out of Indian Punjab and reaches all the way to Delhi.
India believes the SJF is backed by Pakistan and wants to undermine the carefully cultivated reputation India has been building of being a bridge state between the West and the Global South. For example, at the recently concluded G20 summit, Indian diplomats worked several all-nighters to persuade all sides to agree to a hugely sensitive paragraph on Ukraine, that had eluded consensus at all international meetings over the past year.
Now India was being shamed and humiliated in front of the world by someone -- Justin Trudeau -- whose week-long fancy dress party during his 2018 visit to India had been a subject of much mirth and amusement. Whose father, Pierre Trudeau, prime minister of Canada in 1985 when an Air India aircraft blew up over the Irish sea, killing all 329 people on board – an act of terrorism, pure and simple, but for the White Canadian government in power, it didn’t seem to matter much.
The mastermind of the “Kanishka” crash, the name given to the Air India plane after an ancient Indian emperor, Talwinder Singh Parmar, was never caught – he was killed in India in 1992 in an encounter with the Punjab Police. Nor were the other men behind the terror attack – men like Ripudaman Malik and Ajaib Singh Bagri were let off in 2005; only Inderjit Singh Reyat was arrested -- caught and punished.
A formal commission of inquiry was launched only in 2006, but by then the tapes of recorded conversations between the masterminds had been erased either by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police or the Canadian Security Intelligence Service – the turf war between the two authorities destroyed what little was left of the investigation.
Parmar and the others would openly talk about the revenge plotted against former Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi, who had in 1984 ordered the Indian army into the Golden Temple, the holiest shrine of the Sikhs in Amritsar.
More recently in Brampton, a city in the heart of Canada that has a large Sikh population, a tableau was held to mark the anniversary of Operation Bluestar – it featured the mannequin of a woman with her hands up, in a blood stained sari, while turbaned Sikh guards held their guns up at her. The female mannequin was, of course, meant to be Indira Gandhi.
As calls for “Khalistan” have become more open and more eloquent in recent years in Canada, Indian officials have noted that Canadian authorities have turned the other way – in alleged deference to the fundamental right of freedom of speech that the Canadian constitution gives its citizens.
The lack of official Canadian interest in bringing the guilty to justice over the Kanishka terror attack has eaten away at Indian public opinion. This was not just a simple air disaster – it was a terror attack, but the Canadian investigation was completed only in 2010, 25 years after the attack took place.
Trudeau’s accusation against the Indian government carrying out a hit job against the Sikh leader is also being greeted by large dollops of disdain in India. Both officials and the public at large point out the number of assassinations that have been carried out by Western governments – including the 2003 war in Iraq, which was not sanctioned by the United Nations and where no weapons of mass destruction were found.
It seems that then US President George Bush didn’t like the face of Saddam Hussein and wanted him dead; it didn’t matter that the cost was paid in thousands of Iraqi lives, the radicalization of Islamic outfits in the East, the emergence of ISIS and the focus it took away from the “good war” in Afghanistan which ultimately, ended in plain disaster two years ago.
If anything, Justin Trudeau seems to have awarded Prime Minister Narendra Modi the ultimate prize – the affection of his countrymen in an election year. Modi, to whom the credit for burnishing India’s credentials abroad regularly accrues, is now being seen as the victim of a Western nation that is both rich and hypocritical.
Will India have the last laugh? So far, western nations who are part of the intelligence bandwagon called the Five Eyes – comprising the UK, US, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada – have expressed “serious concern” at Trudeau’s “serious allegations” but have held their peace after that.
Few want to destroy a carefully nurtured relationship with India – trade negotiations are at a sensitive stage, including with the UK. And now it seems that US President Joe Biden is coming to India as chief guest of India’s Republic Day celebrations, to commemorate 75 years of the making of the Constitution, come January 2024.
India is surely counting on the undermining of Justin Trudeau from within the Western alliance. Even as the Modi government readies to meet the toughest foreign policy challenge since it was elected to power nine years ago – this spat between India and Canada isn’t going away in a hurry -- it will seek to expose the double standards at the heart of Western anger.
At least, at home in India, one man has won already – Prime Minister Modi.