Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s accusation that India was involved in a covert assassination of a Canadian citizen on Canadian soil has resulted in an escalating row between the two countries. Here are the basic details of the dispute.
On September 18, Trudeau rose to inform the country’s House of Commons that investigations over several weeks by the Canadian security agencies have determined that agents of the Government of India were involved in the assassination on Canadian soil of Hardeep Singh Nijjar, a Canadian citizen. Per Trudeau, he had until that time pursued quiet diplomacy with India over the issue and had also taken Canada’s allies — G7 and Five Eyes club of which Canada is a member — into confidence.
Quiet diplomacy having failed, on that Monday Trudeau went public and stated that “Canada has declared its deep concerns to the top intelligence and security officials of the Indian government.” He then clarified that when he sat down for the bilateral with India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the sidelines of the G20 Summit, he had “brought them [those concerns] personally and directly to Prime Minister Modi in no uncertain terms”.
Between Trudeau’s public accusation and the actual outcome of this episode, there are many diplomatic steps and back-channel negotiations that India can rely on
According to Indian media reports, Modi had responded by accusing Canada of harbouring “Khalistani terrorists”, a term New Delhi uses for Sikh separatists who want to create their own homeland in Indian Punjab.
What does this add up to?
One, the Canadian intelligence and law enforcement agencies have credible intelligence of the Indian government’s involvement in Nijjar’s assassination because Trudeau would not have gone public without the existence of such intel.
Two, the Trudeau government, before going public with the accusations, tried quiet diplomacy with India, bilaterally and presumably multilaterally through its allies. Three, its allies know of Canada’s deep concerns.
Four, Canada may have shared some or all of the intel with the Five Eyes club. Five, some or all of the intel might have been generated through the Five Eyes resources which presumably means the US is in full picture of what happened and, perhaps, how it happened. Six, if Trudeau brought those concerns personally and directly to Modi then he must also have presented incriminating evidence of India’s involvement.
As expected, India has rejected these accusations outright. That is not surprising even if New Delhi knows Ottawa has the evidence needed to make the charge stick. Why? Because between Trudeau’s public accusation and the actual outcome of this episode, there are many diplomatic steps and back-channel negotiations that India can rely on. Further, for India to have said “Yes, sorry. We did it” would have been suicidal for a country that does everything to hide its warts and present its shine.
That game will be played in the band between India’s public rejection of Canada’s accusations and private diplomacy. For this, India will rely on the diplomatic capital it has accumulated over three decades, as well as the interests of Canada’s allies that ultimately make individuals and values expendable.
Contrast, for instance, the cautious and diplomatic responses of Canada’s allies with the actual actions the US and its allies took in 2018 after agents linked to Russia tried to assassinate Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia Skripal in England. Skripal, a former senior Russian intelligence officer, had worked for British intelligence as a double agent and had settled in the UK after being released in a spy swap.
In Skripal’s case, notwithstanding Russia’s denials, the US, Britain, Canada and other allies threw out over 100 Russian diplomats from their capitals. But then Russia is an adversary while India is an ally that’s been courted by the US-led bloc as the competition between the US and China hots up.
Much will also depend on the body of evidence Canada presents to its allies and to India since, predictably, it has not presented the whole picture so far. The investigations are ongoing, which means Ottawa wants to have a watertight case against India
Take another example, the gruesome murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi dissident and journalist, in Istanbul. The murder led to an uproar not just in the West but also in Turkiye with Ankara taking the lead in investigating, prosecuting and diplomatically agitating the issue. The US President Joe Biden for his part had called in 2018 for turning Saudi Arabia into a “pariah”. Today, between Biden’s recalibration of US-Saudi ties in July 2022 to the trade corridor — involving Saudi Arabia — discussed at the G20 Summit earlier this month to the efforts by the US to midwife a Saudi-Israeli peace deal, geopolitical interests have pushed the dismembered and chemically-dissolved body of Khashoggi back in an Istanbul drain.
This is not to say that India can shrug off Canada’s accusations. From what we are witnessing in the shrieking Indian media, New Delhi has got the runs. Nor is Canada likely to back off easily now that Trudeau has publicly made the accusations and committed himself to getting justice for the slain Sikh leader and citizen. Much will also depend on the body of evidence Canada presents to its allies and to India since, predictably, it has not presented the whole picture so far. The investigations are ongoing, which means Ottawa wants to have a watertight case against India.
Beyond that, however, lie the bilateral ties with India and bloc interests of Canada’s allies. Britain is looking for a trade deal with India, one of the big promises of Brexit. It also realises that negotiations to close the deal have so far not gone at the speed London wanted. Britain, therefore, has been cautious in its response and a statement from Foreign Secretary James Cleverly about Canada’s accusations did not mention India by name. The US, after the initial, somewhat muted response, has had to come out more forcefully and signal that there’s no schism between the US and Canada. France is the second biggest exporter of military hardware to India after Russia, the flagship being the Rafale fighter jet.
Analyses have already begun to appear suggesting that this row needs to be resolved. Writing in Wall Street Journal, Tunku Vardarajan, an Indian-American analyst, argued: “Morally murky as it may be, the allies need to find a way to get Mr. Trudeau to walk back his accusation. At the same time—and as part of the compromise—it has to be made clear to Mr. Modi that there can be no assassinations by Indian operatives on the territory of friendly countries.”
This is as clear as it gets: hey, it’s morally murky; India shouldn’t have done it but Canada needs to walk back on this accusation because there are much bigger issues involved in this.
Reuters quoted Richard Fadden, former head of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, as saying that “If we don't get our allies to support this, either publicly or privately, Canada's not going to be able to do a great deal to move India”. He further said, and this is instructive in so far as it portents what’s likely to happen, that he thought “the greatest thing we can aspire to in the short term or the medium term is to get India not to do this again”.
In an article titled, “The West’s Modi problem”, UK’s newspaper The Financial Times opened its analysis by quoting Vincent Rigby, Trudeau’s former national security advisor: “Canada is in a difficult position here. I don’t think they had a choice but to come out. Ultimately, if another country does this on your soil, you have to hold them to account, but Canada doesn’t hold a lot of cards. I think India holds all the cards.”
There will be a lot of heartburn when the dust settles on this brazen act by India. India will not likely come out completely unscathed. There may also be an attempt to distinguish between this as an act by the Modi government rather than India. But in the end, Nijjar will likely become a distant memory as the world powers attend to more selfish interests in the shadow of evolving geopolitical competition.