Trudeau’s Allegations Upend India-Canada Ties

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s South Asia Brief.

The highlights this week: Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s accusations about Indian involvement in an assassination plot plunge India-Canada relations into crisis, Sri Lankan President Ranil Wickremesinghe raises eyebrows on the sidelines of the annual U.N. General Assembly sessions, and India’s opposition alliance boycotts 14 TV anchors’ shows.

It’s hard to overstate the significance of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau revealing on Monday that his government has been investigating “credible allegations” of the involvement of Indian government agents in the assassination of a Sikh separatist leader and Canadian citizen, Hardeep Singh Nijjar, on Canadian soil.

New Delhi rejects the allegations, which have plunged India-Canada relations into crisis. Canada expelled a top Indian official from the country in the wake of the allegations, and on Tuesday, India responded by expelling a Canadian diplomat from New Delhi.

India has long worried about the presence of Sikhs in Canada who advocate for an independent homeland, which they call Khalistan, in the Indian state of Punjab. Until recently, the issue hadn’t constrained cooperation between India and Canada. In the past few years, the two countries have scaled up trade and defense ties, converged strategically around shared concerns about China, and engaged in multilateral partnership through groups such as the G-20.

However, tensions have never been far from the surface. In 2020, Trudeau’s expressions of solidarity with protesting farmers in Punjab, many of them Sikhs, didn’t sit well with New Delhi. The support came at a moment when demonstrations by pro-independence members of the Sikh diaspora were starting to increase—not only in Canada but also in Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States. This year, several pro-Khalistan protests led to acts of violence against Indian diplomatic facilities.

When it comes to Sikh activists in Canada, India has taken an uncompromising line, linking any separatists there to a pro-Khalistan movement with a violent past. In 1984, Sikh separatist extremists took over a revered Sikh temple in Amritsar, India, prompting then-Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi to order a military operation that killed hundreds of people. Later that year, Gandhi was assassinated by two of her Sikh bodyguards, and Hindus retaliated with attacks against the Sikh community—the worst religious violence since the Partition of India.

In 1985, Canada directly experienced Sikh extremist violence, when terrorists planted a bomb on an Air India jet flying from Montreal to London, killing all 329 passengers and crew members on board. One of the first suspects arrested was a Sikh man living in Vancouver, Canada. A Canadian commission later concluded that security agencies made errors and poor decisions that contributed to the tragedy, which remains a major sticking point between India and Canada.

A separatist insurgency was active in Punjab until the mid-1990s, and India has long accused Pakistan of backing the pro-Khalistan movement. Although Sikh separatism is no longer a major security threat in India, it remains a deeply sensitive issue. New Delhi harbors no tolerance for those who advocate for Khalistan, whether at home or abroad. In 2020, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leaders accused the protesting farmers of being separatists; the same year, it formally categorized Nijjar as a terrorist.

In Canada, however, considerations about rule of law and freedom of speech and assembly preclude authorities from cracking down on Sikh activists. Trudeau, currently grappling with rising unpopularity, may also seek more political support from the Sikh community, which numbers nearly 800,000 in Canada. Regardless, India has clearly concluded that Canada has failed to address its serious security concerns. If Trudeau’s allegations are to be believed, New Delhi chose to take matters into its own hands.

Trudeau’s accusations show that the Sikh issue is now seeping into critical aspects of the India-Canada relationship. A few weeks ago, Ottawa announced that it would suspend talks with New Delhi on a new trade deal—a move likely connected to the investigation into Nijjar’s killing. Their bilateral ties seem to be losing the capacity to withstand shocks, which is an ominous sign for India. Canada is one of its key defense and commercial partners and a major investor; it is also home to a rapidly growing Indian diaspora and a top destination for Indian students.

Other countries that are home to many people sympathetic to Sikh separatist causes—Australia, Canada, the U.K., and the United States—are all members of the Five Eyes intelligence alliance. Ottawa’s allegations could increase other members’ concerns about their own security. But Canada’s Western allies will likely hold back from confronting India out of fear of antagonizing the government there, just as they have when it comes to expressing worries about New Delhi’s democratic backsliding.

Still, although Western countries may be willing to overlook threats to democracy in India due to strategic imperatives, they can’t just shrug off Trudeau’s allegations. Unlike blows to civil rights in India, state-sponsored assassinations on Western soil pose direct security threats.

South Asian leaders at UNGA. This week, leaders from across South Asia arrived in New York for the annual United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) sessions, which began Tuesday and run through next week. Sri Lanka and Nepal have speaking slots on Thursday; leaders from Bangladesh and Pakistan will speak on Friday; the Maldives’ slot is on Saturday; and leaders from Afghanistan, Bhutan, and India are slotted for next Tuesday.

There are a few interesting storylines for South Asia at UNGA this year. Pakistan’s caretaker prime minister, Anwaar-ul-Haq Kakar, will represent Islamabad, which is unusual for an interim leader meant to focus on preparing the country for elections. Because of Trudeau’s accusations, Indian External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar will be at the center of attention. (Jaishankar, rather than Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, is in New York representing New Delhi.) Since the U.N. does not recognize the Taliban regime, there may be no speaker to represent Afghanistan. (The current senior Afghan representative to the U.N. declined to speak last year.)

The first leader from the region to make waves this week was Sri Lankan President Ranil Wickremesinghe, whose comments at an event hosted by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in New York on Monday raised eyebrows. Wickremesinghe criticized the AUKUS security alliance, deeming it a “mistake,” and denounced the term Indo-Pacific as an “artificial framework.” He also rejected India’s claim that China is sending vessels to Sri Lanka to spy on India.

Wickremesinghe’s comments seemed to be music to China’s ears. With India shoring up influence in Sri Lanka in the last year—especially through generous assistance to help ease the country’s economic crisis—Wickremesinghe likely wanted to reassert his government’s neutral position by signaling that Colombo values its relations with Beijing as well.

Indian opposition media boycott. India’s new opposition alliance, which goes by the acronym INDIA, announced last week that it will boycott the shows of 14 prominent TV anchors who it says engage in divisive rhetoric. “We will not partake in these showrooms of hate,” an Indian National Congress party spokesperson said. The opposition alliance accuses the anchors of being in league with the BJP and embracing its rhetoric, especially on religious issues.

At first glance, the decision seems like a principled move against intolerance and threats to diversity in Indian society—but it could backfire. By refusing to engage with the views it rejects, the opposition may open itself up to criticism that it is also guilty of intolerance; the move could also bolster the TV anchors by allowing them to project themselves as victims of a targeted campaign.

None of this would be good news for an opposition that faces a herculean challenge to defeat Modi and the BJP in elections next year.

Foxconn plans to ramp up in India. Barely two months after announcing it was backing out of a joint semiconductor venture with Indian firm Vedanta, Taiwanese chip giant Foxconn—a major iPhone manufacturer—is singing a different tune. On Sunday, a company representative said the firm will double the size of its business in India; he also informed Modi that the company hopes for “another doubling” of employment next year.

This week, an Indian official went a step further, saying that Foxconn investment in India, currently at $8 billion, could increase fivefold in the next three years. Foxconn’s current investment plans in the country include a new iPhone plant near the Bengaluru airport that is projected to employ about 100,000 people. This is a boon for India, which aims to capitalize on the desire of many tech firms, including Apple, to relocate some production away from China.

Foxconn’s momentum in India represents a setback for China but also for Vietnam, another rapidly growing economy that has emerged as an attractive location for the world’s top tech firms.

Last week, Pakistan’s caretaker government announced plans to privatize the country’s struggling national airline, Pakistan International Airlines (PIA). It’s not the first time Islamabad has sought to do so, but previous attempts failed due to powerful interests in the company—from unions to executives—that insist it remain state-owned. The current attempt at privatization could fall short as well.

However, the airline’s mounting debt has made it a major drag on Pakistan’s economy, which is facing one of its worst crises in decades. Public corporations are one of the top sources of Pakistani public debt.

In some ways, PIA is a microcosm of Pakistan’s economy. During its heyday from the 1960s to the 1980s, many Pakistanis and foreign travelers regarded it as one of the world’s best airlines. (Pakistan’s economy experienced considerable growth at the same time.) But mismanagement and poor financial decisions have hastened the airline’s decline in the last few decades, leading to worsening revenues and disrupted travel.

This year, in a major embarrassment, one of the airline’s jets was impounded at a Malaysian airport due to unpaid bills. Much as Pakistani officials have declined to subject the country’s economy to badly needed reforms—from export diversification to efforts to enlarge the tax base—Pakistan has so far been unwilling to shepherd the airline on to the privatization path that many experts insist is necessary.

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