Canada and India are friends and have close relationship for many decades. However, the PM Justin Trudeau, by countenancing the rising anti-India activities of extremist Sikh groups (Khalistani) in Canada, has brought relations with India under increasing strain during his term in office.
Now, with his statement in the House of Commons on Monday, where he openly blamed Indian government of killing a Khalistani terrorist, he has created an unusual and unprecedented diplomatic crisis between two major democracies.
However, this time it seems Justin Trudeau has just ruined Canada’s ties with India and their relationship won’t recover for years, to say the least.
It started in 2015, when Trudeau became Canada’s Prime Minister. He came to office after a successful visit by PM Modi in 2015. Over the previous decade, Canada’s PM Stephen Harper pushed for a stronger relationship with India.
In 2010, Harper helped start talks on a Free Trade Agreement. He also signed a nuclear agreement with India in 2015 where Canada agreed to sell Uranium. He also made 2011 the “Year of India” in Canada, and it is safe to say that Trudeau inherited a strong bilateral relationship.
During his election campaign, Trudeau’s Liberal Party called for closer trade ties with India, but not much else was known about his India policy. However, a perception took hold that Trudeau failed to capitalize on the momentum that Harper had built up.
In 2016, Canadian High Commissioner Nirad Patel had to face questions about whether the relationship had been put into “auto pilot”. This was because experts felt Trudeau had neglected India during his first year as PM. The talks on an FTA were also slowed down.
Trudeau’s 2018 visit to India only came after his efforts to strike a trade deal with China during a visit in 2017 ran into the ground. As mentioned before, part of the speculation among experts was that Trudeau had focused on China while India was relatively low priority.
In 2018, Trudeau travelled to India in a bid to push the relationship forward, but it became a controversial visit rather. Jaspal Atwal, a man convicted of trying to kill an Indian Cabinet minister in 1986, received an invite for a dinner from the Canadian High Commission, and he even attended a dinner, got clicked with Trudeau’s wife.
Atwal was a part of the pro-Khalistan movement. The invite was quickly cancelled but it caused significant public outrage in India. While India and Canada announced new investments and a joint framework for cooperation on counter-terror, this incident overshadowed the visit.
Canada mentioned pro-Khalistan terror groups like Babbar Khalsa International for the first time in that joint framework on terror. That led to hope that Canada was looking to change its “soft on Khalistan terror” image. That wasn’t to be.
India Today reports that in 2018, Canada released a report identifying Khalistani extremism as a threat to public safety but pressure came in from these groups, who are politically active and are major supporters of the Liberal Party. Finally Trudeau’s govt caved under pressure.
In the next version of the report, all references to the Khalistan/Sikh extremism were removed. Indian officials were disappointed by this backtracking. Things got worse in 2020 when Trudeau made comments on the ongoing farmer law protests, and Indian government shot back against this interference.
In 2021, Trudeau’s party lost its majority in parliament. It formed a coalition with Jagmeet Singh, the leader of the New Democratic Party. Singh has spoken at a pro-Khalistan rally and termed the 1984 riots a “genocide”. He has gradually become a prominent India-sceptic person.
While the relationship on defence and trade continued to grow, political tensions simmered underneath. In 2023, the manhunt for extremist Amritpal Singh led to internet shutdowns by authorities. Jagmeet Singh condemned the “draconian” measures adding to tensions.
The crackdown led to protests against India’s High Commission in Canada and the alleged use of smoke grenades. Pro-Khalistan groups also aired propaganda glorifying the attack and they also aired specific propaganda attacking specific Indian diplomats for the death of Hardeep Nijjar.
These attacks on its diplomats angered India, and the anger only increased due to lack of action by Canadian authorities. India’s Foreign Minister S Jaishankar attacked Canada for practicing “vote bank politics”, but Canada’s govt thought there was something to the allegations made on Nijjar’s death.
As India’s Foreign Ministry stated, Canada shared no detailed information about its suspicions. Giving no reasons, it asked the Indian govt to pause talks on their proposed FTA. Canada’s Trade Minister cancelled a visit to India, and once again, no reasons or justifications were given.
Right before the G20, Canada attempted to ruin the event by approaching powers like America and the UK to confront India over Nijjar’s death, but it did not receive their support.
That led to Monday’s events, where Trudeau essentially accused India of having a role in Nijjar’s death. The manner in which the accusations were made will make India-Canada ties radioactive for years.
Trust is broken and plans for cooperation in trade and defence effectively dead. That is a marked contrast to the bilateral relationship Trudeau inherited. All it took was 8 years to ruin the healthy relationship of India and Canada. Thanks but No thanks Mr. Trudeau!