(Bloomberg) — India rejected allegations by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau that its government agents were behind the assassination of a prominent Sikh leader in Canada and moved to expel a Canadian diplomat in a new low for ties between the two countries.
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“Allegations of the Government of India’s involvement in any act of violence in Canada are absurd and motivated,” its Ministry of External Affairs said in a statement Tuesday.
Trudeau said there are “credible allegations” of India’s involvement in the killing. “Canada has declared its deep concerns to the top intelligence and security officials of the Indian government,” Trudeau said Monday in the House of Commons in Ottawa.
“Any involvement of a foreign government in the killing of a Canadian citizen on Canadian soil is an unacceptable violation of our sovereignty,” he said.
Trudeau said he raised these concerns “personally and directly” with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the sidelines of the Group of 20 meeting last week in New Delhi. Modi used the informal exchange to criticize the Canadian government for allegedly allowing Sikh secessionist groups to operate in the country.
The Canadian prime minister told lawmakers his government would pressure India to cooperate in investigations into the June 18 shooting of Hardeep Singh Nijjar outside a temple in British Columbia. Nijjar advocated for an independent Sikh homeland in northwestern India and his death sparked protests among supporters of the separatist movement, which alleged the Indian government was behind the killing.
Melanie Joly, Canada’s foreign minister, said she expelled a top Indian diplomat, without giving further details. In a tit-for-tat reaction, India summoned the Canadian High Commissioner on Tuesday to relay a decision to expel a senior diplomat based in the South Asian country.
John Kirton, director of the G-20 Research Group at the University of Toronto, said the frostiness was palpable between the Canadian and Indian delegations at the summit in New Delhi. The relationship between the two countries “is now at a very downward trough,” he said. “It’s a very serious issue, but at this point it’s still in the realm of allegations.”
The festering ties threatens to derail plans for an early-stage trade deal. Both nations this year said they expected to agree to a trade pact by end-2023 but it was put on hold ahead of the G-20 summit. Canada last week postponed a trade mission to India in October.
Trade talks with Canada will continue to be on hold until “certain political developments” are resolved, according to a senior Indian government official.
While Canada doesn’t even make it to India’s top 20 trading partners, any breakdown in trade negotiations will be a blow to India that’s trying to position itself globally as a supply chain alternative to China. In 2022, India had a $2.87 billion trade surplus with Canada.
The tensions between the two could pose a problem for US President Joe Biden. He has been trying to court Modi as Washington seeks to build nations in a united front against China’s assertiveness in the Indo-Pacific region. The Biden administration has also been busy trying to restore ties with neighbor Canada that were strained under former US President Donald Trump.
The US was “deeply concerned” about the allegations disclosed by Trudeau, National Security Council spokesperson Adrienne Watson said in an emailed statement. “It is critical that Canada’s investigation proceed and the perpetrators be brought to justice,”Watson said.
The fraying bilateral ties are centered around the Sikh population in Canada — one of the highest outside their state of Punjab in India, and their demands for a separate homeland. There are longstanding allegations from Indian officials that Canada has been too comfortable with Sikh separatists.
“That Canadian political figures have openly expressed sympathy for such elements remains a matter of deep concern,” the statement Tuesday from the Ministry of External Affairs said.
Some of the protests by these Sikh groups have focused on India’s diplomatic mission and consulates across Canada in recent years. New Delhi characterized a June demonstration outside its High Commission as an “attack” and said its anti-terror agency was investigating.
India is especially concerned about a banned secessionist group, which fought to create an independent state called Khalistan in the 1980s and 1990s.
The movement made the headlines earlier this year when a self-styled preacher Amritpal Singh called on his followers to revive it. He was later arrested after a manhunt but the Khalistan movement continues to find some support among the Sikh diaspora, especially in the UK, Australia and Canada.
–With assistance from Jennifer Jacobs, Stephen Wicary, Vrishti Beniwal, John Harney, Shruti Srivastava and Sudhi Ranjan Sen.
(Updates with write through and India moving to expel senior Canadian diplomat)
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