India-Canada bilateral relations: 8-year twist turns friends to foes

The June 18 killing of Hardeep Singh Nijjar was the boiling point that has rocked the relations, argues Prabhjot Singh

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Indian PM Narendra Modi and Canadian PM Justin Trudeau at the G20 summit in New Delhi on Sept 10, 2023 – Photo: Justin Trudeau Facebook

By Prabhjot Singh | Opinion |

Two “friendly” nations promising to “elevate” their bilateral relationship to a strategic relationship eight years ago, are now locked in an unprecedented acrimonious and “tit for tat” “strategic” warfare. What has triggered this massive rift? Friends have turned foes and people, especially the immigrants from the sub-continent, are generally scarred and dumbfounded over the turn of events that started unfolding since the beginning of this month.

There have been similarities that both Canada (2010) and India (2023) played host to the World leadership as a part of the G20 Summits. But the results from the two events, however, have been intriguingly contrary to the expectations. More than the G20 agenda, long time irritants between the two nations with strong people-to-people connections, took the centre stage as two Prime Ministers, instead of a bilateral meeting on the side-lines had a pull aside stand off to reel out their grievances without discussing solutions.

The New Delhi G20 Summit may go down in the annals of the history as one of the most well organised august gathering since its inception in 1999 but also left behind a bitter taste over the Indo-Canadian stand-off. If one looks at the New Delhi summit, it may have witnessed emergence of India as a new non-aligned centre of power or South-South leader but it also witnessed two nations who wanted to take their bilateral to a new strategic partnership falling apart.

Why and what could be the factors that accelerated deterioration in relations between India and Canada?

It would be interesting to go through the official statements issued after Indian Prime Ministers, Dr Manmohan Singh (2010) and Mr Narendra Modi (2015), visited Canada. While Dr Manmohan Singh was in Canada to participate in the G20 Summit, Mr Narendra Modi went on a two-day bilateral visit at the invitation of his Canadian counterpart, Mr Stephen Harper.

Let us get back to the history of Indo-Canadian bilateral relations. Except for the tenures of Jean Chretien and Stephen Harper as Prime Ministers, Canada’s bilateral relations with India have hardly been cordial. The 2015 visit of Narendra Modi took place when Canada was already in election mode. Though the relations between India and Canada had already touched a new low, no one expected the showdown to come at G20 Summit. It has been made to look more coincidental than by design. Signs that soiled relations between Canada and India were heading for a showdown was more than evident when Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, unlike other Western leaders, did not hold formal bilateral talks with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Instead, the two leaders raised serious concerns with each other on the side-lines of the summit, where Modi brought up “continuing anti-India activities of extremist elements in Canada,” a statement by office of Indian PM said.

The India-Canada ties have generally been driven by moderate trade, huge Indian investments and the presence of a large Indian diaspora in Canada. These factors, however, have been subdued by strong Indian criticism that Canada has been over sympathetic towards a Sikh separatist movement. Canada, on the other hand, has been accusing Indian officials of interfering in its domestic politics. Th e “chequered” relationship suffered a devastating blow when Justin Trudeau announced in Canadian Parliament that Ottawa was pursuing “credible allegations” from its intelligence against New Delhi for playing a role in the assassination of a prominent Sikh Canadian leader, Hardeep Singh Nijjar, on Canadian soil on June 18. The announcement followed a tit for tat action by both Canada and Indian government in expelling a senior diplomat each. As if it was not enough, India also announced suspension of visa services from its Canadian missions besides telling Canada to scale down its diplomatic staff in India.

The warmth and cordiality in bilateral relations had been missing right from the beginning. Imagine, the first official visit of a Canadian Prime Minister to India came in 1996, exactly 23 years after Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi travelled to Canada. It took almost 42 years for the second Indian Prime Minister – Narendra Modi – to come on a bilateral visit in 2015.

A year after visiting Canada, Indira Gandhi wanted to tell the world that India was on the threshold of becoming a nuclear power with a nuclear explosion in Pokhran that led to an international backlash. The then Canadian PM Pierre Trudeau (father of the current PM Justin Trudeau) assailed it as an act of “betrayal” since the plutonium used was produced by the Canadian aided nuclear reactor CIRUS.

Eight years later in 1982 Indian Government through PM Indira Gandhi raised the issue of Canadian soil being used by Sikh extremists demanding a separate Sikh homeland. Pierre Trudeau, who was feeling cut up by Indian action in Pokhran, however, kept quiet.

In 1996, Jean Chrétien became the first Canadian Prime Minister to visit India. His visit was viewed as a diplomatic effort to undo the damage done to the bilateral relations in the immediate past. He also became the first Prime Minister to visit Golden Temple in Amritsar. He also inaugurated Canada’s Consulate in Chandigarh, the first foreign mission outside four cities of New Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata and Chennai.

His visit raised hopes of strengthening bilateral relations as back home in Canada, the first ever three members of Indian diaspora – Herb Dhaliwal, Gurbax Singh Malhi and Jag Bhaduria – were chosen on ruling Liberal party ticket to House of Commons. “Canada is back in India and we are here to stay,” was something Chrétien said often during his visit, for which he brought along eight premiers out of the 10 Canadian provinces and over 300 Canadian business leaders.

But whatever gains were made during this trip, were lost two years later. When India sent for its second nuclear explosion in 1998, Canada was among the first few friendly nations to slap sanctions on New Delhi. Canada also withdrew its High Commissioner from India. It was during this thaw in bilateral relations that a delegation of the Opposition led by Preston Manning (Reform Party, the forerunner of present Conservatives) visited India and held meetings with the Indian government. Gurmant Grewal, who was elected to House of Commons from British Columbia on Reforms (Progressive Alliance), was a part of the delegation. After the first three MPs of Indian origin, Gurmant Grewal, Deepak Obhrai and Rahim Jaffer were the next batch of MPs of Indian origin to sit in Canadian Parliament.

Because of these frequent ups and downs, India-Canada bilateral relationship was often described as “chequered”. In 2015, when dispute over “nuclear fuel” was finally settled, the use of Canadian soil by Sikh separatists, started to define the bilateral relationship. The June 18 killing of Hardeep Singh Nijjar was the boiling point that has rocked the relations. There may be little or some credence to the belief that the statement made by Justin Trudeau in House of Commons was to appease Sikhs who constitute only two percent of the country’s population that crossed 40 million mark a few months ago.

(Prabhjot Singh is a veteran journalist with over three decades of experience of 14 years with Reuters News and 30 years with The Tribune Group, covering a wide spectrum of subjects and stories. He has covered Punjab and Sikh affairs for more than three decades besides covering seven Olympics and several major sporting events and hosting TV shows.)

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