The very public disclosure of the Indian government’s involvement in assassinating a Canadian Sikh dissident with separatist aspirations in British Columbia has become the subject of major attention. Analysts are speculating what these accusations mean for India’s image as a rising power, and for its relations with western countries, including not only Canada but also the US.
The US is, indeed, in an awkward spot, as it does not want to see a rupture in relations between its neighbouring ally to the north and its strategic partner in South Asia, which is considered vital in helping contain China.
Canada and India also have significant bilateral economic ties. Earlier this year, the two countries had decided to ramp up trade and defence cooperation. India was trying to woo Canadian defence manufacturers to begin co-producing weapons in India. These agreements have now been shelved, alongside the mutual expulsion of diplomats, as ties between the two countries have suddenly frayed.
There is, however, a longer history to Canadian-Indian contentions concerning the Khalistan question. Recall, for instance, the diplomatic crisis triggered by the bombing of a London-bound Air India flight from Toronto by Sikh separatists in 1985, at the height of the Sikh insurgency in India.
There is a Sikh diaspora community in Canada today, which comprises over 2% of the Canadian population. The Trudeau government has long been wooing the Sikh vote, and Trudeau has also gotten in trouble with the Modi government in the past for showing sympathy for Sikh grievances in India. Trudeau’s 2018 Indian trip soured when he attended an official Canadian dinner in Delhi where a former Sikh separatist was also present. The Modi government did not appreciate Trudeau’s “ill informed” comments expressing solidarity with Sikh farmers protesting the now rolled-back Indian farm reforms effort in 2020.
India has wanted Canada to clamp down or expel Sikh separatist elements. Indian fears of a resurgence in Sikh separatist aspirations, including within its diasporic communities, are not unfounded. Sikhs, along with other ethnic minorities, including Muslims, are having a tough time under Modi’s Hindu nationalist government. Earlier this year, India allegedly carried out an execution of a Sikh separatist in Lahore. While the assassination of a Sikh on Pakistani soil earlier this year got no attention, Hardeep Singh Najjar, the victim of the Canadian assassination, apparently held Indian intelligence agencies responsible for the targeted killing in Pakistan and foreshadowed becoming a target of such an attack himself.
The state-sanctioned killing of any individual in another country is considered illegal within international law as it is an assault on the sovereignty of another state. However, such killings do take place. The US itself has been accused of being involved in many such targeted attacks in South America, for instance. North Korea, Russia and Israel are also suspected of targeted killings of undesirable individuals on foreign soil. In the post-9/11 context, the US and its allies pushed back against the illegality of targeted killings, especially via the use of drones. It has been argued that killing terrorists who are engaged in hostile activities against the US and other countries is legitimate, especially if the use of drones has been either sanctioned by other states, or else is taking place within states which are unwilling or unable to act against such hostile elements themselves. The collateral damage often caused by drones, of course, is an inconvenience which leads to an array of other unresolved legal and human rights challenges.
It is in this broader context that the killing of a Sikh separatist, which the Indian state has labeled ‘a terrorist’, needs to also be considered. The Indian government is still denying involvement in the extra-territorial killing. It is, however, possible that India may resort to more obtuse reasoning anchored in post-9/11 security imperatives, such as the need to act against a terrorist, if Canada goes public with the evidence based on which it has accused India of killing a naturalised Canadian citizen on Canadian soil.
Published in The Express Tribune, September 29th, 2023.