A senior Canadian diplomat has been ordered to leave India, the Indian foreign ministry said, hours after Ottawa expelled an Indian diplomat in an escalating rift over the killing of a Sikh separatist earlier this year.
New Delhi’s decision reflected its “growing concern at the interference of Canadian diplomats in our internal matters and their involvement in anti-India activities”, the foreign ministry said in a statement on Tuesday.
The duelling expulsions come as relations between Canada and India are tense. Trade talks have been derailed and Canada just cancelled a trade mission to India that was planned later this year.
Protests by pro-Sikh independence groups in Canada have angered Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government.
Canada on Monday said it was “actively pursuing credible allegations” linking Indian government agents to the murder of the Sikh separatist leader Hardeep Singh Nijjar outside a cultural centre in Surrey, British Columbia on June 18.
Nijjar was reportedly organising an unofficial referendum in India for an independent Sikh nation at the time of this death.
India dismissed the Canadian accusation as “absurd and motivated” and urged it instead to take legal action against anti-Indian elements operating from its soil.
Sikh separatist movement
Last year, the Indian authorities announced a cash reward for information leading to Nijjar’s arrest, accusing him of involvement in an alleged attack on a Hindu priest in India.
The Sikh independence, or Khalistan, movement is banned in India, where officials see it and affiliated groups as a national security threat. But the movement still has some support in northern India, as well as countries like Canada and the United Kingdom which are home to a sizable Sikh diaspora.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told the parliament on Monday he brought up Nijjar’s killing with Modi at the Group of 20 (G20) Summit last week. He said he told Modi that any Indian government involvement would be unacceptable and that he asked for cooperation in the investigation.
“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. “In the strongest possible terms I continue to urge the government of India to cooperate with Canada to get to the bottom of this matter.”
On Tuesday, India’s foreign ministry released a statement, dismissing the allegation and saying Trudeau had made similar allegations to Modi.
“Such unsubstantiated allegations seek to shift the focus from Khalistani terrorists and extremists, who have been provided shelter in Canada and continue to threaten India’s sovereignty and territorial integrity,” the statementsaid, referring to the proposed name of a Sikh homeland.
Canadian Foreign Minister Mélanie Joly said a top diplomat, who she said was the head of Indian intelligence in Canada, was expelled as a consequence.
“If proven true this would be a great violation of our sovereignty and of the most basic rule of how countries deal with each other,” Joly said. “As a consequence we have expelled a top Indian diplomat.”
Canada has a Sikh population of more than 770,000, or about 2 percent of its total population.
‘Nijjar spoke of threat to his life’
Canadian opposition New Democrat leader Jagmeet Singh, who is himself Sikh, said he grew up hearing stories that challenging India’s record on human rights might prevent you from getting a visa to travel there.
“But to hear the prime minister of Canada corroborate a potential link between a murder of a Canadian citizen on Canadian soil by a foreign government is something I could never have imagined,” Singh said.
British Columbia Premier David Eby said he received a briefing from Canada’s spy agency about the “assassination” of Nijjar and he is “deeply disturbed” by what he was told.
The World Sikh Organisation of Canada called Nijjar an outspoken supporter of Khalistan who “often led peaceful protests against the violation of human rights actively taking place in India and in support of Khalistan”.
“Nijjar had publicly spoken of the threat to his life for months and said that he was targeted by Indian intelligence agencies,” the statement said.
Nijjar’s New York-based lawyer, Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, has said Nijjar was warned by Canadian intelligence officials about being targeted for assassination by “mercenaries” before he was gunned down, the Associated Press reported.
Indian authorities have targeted Sikh separatism since the 1980s, when an armed rebellion for an independent Sikh state began in Punjab state.
In 1984, Indian forces stormed the Golden Temple in the state’s Amritsar city to flush out Sikh separatists, who had taken refuge there. The controversial operation killed around 400, according to official figures, although Sikh groups estimate the toll to be higher.
The prime minister who ordered the raid, Indira Gandhi, was killed afterwards by two of her bodyguards, who were Sikh. Her death triggered a series of anti-Sikh riots, in which Hindu mobs went from house to house across northern India, pulling Sikhs from their homes, hacking many to death and burning others alive.
Modi’s government has intensified the pursuit of Sikh separatists. When farmers camped out on the edges of New Delhi to protest agriculture laws in 2021, Modi’s government initially tried to discredit Sikh participants by dismissing their concerns by calling them “Khalistanis”.
Police also arrested a 22-year-old climate activist for supporting the farmers and accused her of being in touch with Sikh independence supporters.
Earlier this year, supporters of the Khalistan movement vandalised Indian consulates in London and San Francisco. In April, Indian police arrested a leader who had become popular for speeches that called for an independent Sikh homeland after a month-long hunt.
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