Assassination accusation: What just happened between Canada and India?

Analysis Rhea Mogul, CNN

CNN  —  Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has urged India to investigate seriously his claim that he has credible information linking New Delhi to the assassination of a Sikh separatist activist on Canadian soil, doubling down on an allegation that has triggered a diplomatic row and is threatening a deterioration in relations between the two countries.

Trudeau said Tuesday Canada wasn’t trying to “provoke” India or “escalate” the situation, but was “simply laying out the facts.” He said his government will “follow the evidence and make sure that the work is done to hold people to account.”

Canada’s allegation the Indian government was potentially involved in the June killing of prominent Sikh leader Hardeep Singh Nijjar has outraged New Delhi, which has vehemently denied the claim, calling it “absurd and motivated.”

Experts say the falling out raises the prospect of an unprecedented rift between two key partners of the United States, and potentially puts other major Western countries in an uncomfortable position.

Here’s what you need to know.

Why are India-Canada relations cratering?

Trudeau claimed in Parliament on Monday that Canadian authorities had been investigating “credible allegations” of a link between “agents of the government of India” and the killing of Nijjar, a Sikh Canadian citizen who was gunned down by masked men in June.

Canada’s foreign affairs minister Melanie Joly subsequently said that Ottowa had expelled an Indian diplomat, whom she described as the head of the Indian intelligence agency in the country, as a “consequence.”

India responded hours later by rejecting Trudeau’s allegations, accusing Canada of harboring terrorists and claiming its inaction against extremists had been a “long-standing” concern. It also expelled a senior Canadian diplomat from the country.

Nijjar’s death in June shocked the Sikh community in Canada, one of the largest outside India with more than 770,000 members.

Following Trudeau’s comments, two Sikh community groups in Canada – the British Columbia Gurdwaras Council and Ontario Gurdwaras Committee – urged the Canadian government to “immediately suspend all intelligence, investigative and prosecutorial cooperation with India.”

“Canada’s comprehensive response must reflect the gravity of India’s role in the premeditated murder of a Sikh dissident living in Canada,” the groups added in a joint statement.

Who was Hardeep Singh Nijjar?

Nijjar was an outspoken supporter of the creation of a separate Sikh homeland known as Khalistan, which would include parts of India’s Punjab state.

The Khalistan movement is outlawed in India and considered a national security threat by the government. A number of groups associated with the movement are listed as “terrorist organizations” under India’s Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA).

Nijjar’s name appears on the Home Ministry’s list of UAPA terrorists and in 2020, the Indian National Investigation Agency accused him of “trying to radicalize the Sikh community across the world in favor of the creation of ‘Khalistan,’” adding that he had been “trying to incite Sikhs to vote for secession, agitate against the government of India and carry out violent activities.”

Nijjar’s friend and former lawyer, who also appears on India’s UAPA wanted list, said Nijjar was warned at least three times by Canadian authorities including the Royal Canadian Mounted Police about threats to his life.

Gurpatwant Singh Pannun told CNN that Nijjar was asked to be careful and avoid giving “big talks” or he would be targeted. CNN has reached out to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.

Pannun, who faces multiple charges from the Indian government, runs a New York-based outfit called “Sikhs for Justice,” which has held referendums for a separate Khalistan state. The organization is considered unlawful in India, where its website is not accessible.

Canadian police have not arrested anyone in connection with Nijjar’s murder. But in an August update, police said they were investigating three suspects and issued a description of a possible getaway vehicle.

Can relations return to where they were?

Relations between the two countries have been tepid for several years and Canada’s allegations against the Indian government are likely to further sour things.

Harsh Pant, vice president of foreign policy at the New Delhi based think tank Observer Research Foundation, called the situation “quite extraordinary.”

“Friendly nations don’t do this to each other,” he said. “The challenges (that arise from this) are something to be seen because I don’t see any light, at least in the short term, at the end of the tunnel.”

Negotiations for a trade deal between the countries have been paused due to issues “of serious concern,” India’s commerce and trade minister said, according to local reports.

When Modi hosted the Group of 20 (G20) leaders in New Delhi this month, he did not meet Trudeau one-on-one but on the sidelines of the summit, where the Indian leader “conveyed our strong concerns about continuing anti-India activities of extremist elements in Canada,” according to the Indian government.

India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi shakes hands with the youngest son of Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau while attending a ceremonial reception at the Presidential Palace in New Delhi on February 23, 2018.

Tensions have been “simmering under the surface for a while,” Pant said.

When Trudeau visited India in 2018, his calendar, which was light on diplomatic meetings, was seen by many as a “snub” from New Delhi. A year earlier, the Canadian leader had been seen at a Sikh event in Toronto where separatist flags and posters depicting an extremist Sikh leader killed in a 1984 Indian Army operation were displayed.

In its statement on Tuesday, the Indian government said: “That Canadian political figures have openly expressed sympathy for such elements remains a matter of deep concern.”

How have others responded?

Canada’s allegations come days after Modi hosted world leaders including US President Joe Biden, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Australia’s Anthony Albanese for the G20 summit in New Delhi.

Each of those countries has a sizable Sikh population and are keen for warm relations with New Delhi, in part as a buttress against the growing assertiveness of China.

However, those three key allies of Canada issued statements that indicated some support for Trudeau’s decision to go public with his concerns.

The White House is “deeply concerned” about the allegations, National Security Council spokesperson Adrienne Watson said, adding it was “critical that Canada’s investigations proceed and the perpetrators be brought to justice.”

A spokesperson for Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong said the country is also “deeply concerned.”

“We understand these reports will be particularly concerning to some Australian communities,” a statement said. “The Indian diaspora are valued and important contributors to our vibrant and resilient multicultural society, where all Australians can peacefully and safely express their views.”

Meanwhile, a spokesperson for the British prime minister said, “It’s right that the Canadian authorities are looking into (the matter), but I’m not going to get ahead of that work that needs to take place now.”

CNN’s Akanksha Sharma and Manveena Suri contributed to this report.

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