India and Canada ties have taken a turn for the worst. And the primary reason for this growing tension is the rise of the Khalistani sentiment in Canada.
The relations between the two countries reached its lowest on Tuesday (19 September) when Canada expelled India’s top diplomat, alleging that there was “credible information” linking Indian government agents to the murder of Hardeep Singh Nijjar in British Columbia in June. New Delhi, in a tit-for-tat move, expelled Ottawa’s diplomat, giving him five days to leave.
The Ministry of External Affairs said the decision to expel the Canadian diplomat reflects India’s growing concern at the “interference of Canadian diplomats in our internal matters and their involvement in anti-India activities”.
For long now, New Delhi has reiterated that Canada is soft on Khalistani activities and giving increasing space to separatists on their soil.
Here are just a few recent examples.
Khalistani referendum in Surrey
A week ago, while Canada’s Justin Trudeau was in New Delhi for the G20 Summit during which he held talks with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the Sikhs for Justice (SFJ) group, which is banned in India, organised a Khalistani referendum in Surrey, British Columbia.
Khalistani separatist and SFJ founder Gurpatwant Singh Pannun made a public appearance at the referendum and delivered a speech hinting at ‘balkanising’ India.
According to an India Today report, the referendum saw an attendance of approximately 7,000 people.
The incident took place as Prime Minister Narendra Modi conveyed to his Canadian counterpart Justin Trudeau about India’s concerns about extremists promoting secessionism and inciting violence against Indian diplomats in Canada.
Threat of violence to Indian diplomats
Earlier in July, a poster became a flashpoint between the two countries as it threatened violence against three India diplomats. The poster carried photographs of India’s high commissioner to Canada, Sanjay Kumar Verma, consul general of India in Toronto, Apoorva Srivastava, and consul general of India in Vancouver, Manish and accused them for the killing of Hardeep Singh Nijjar.
Reacting to the posters, Canadian foreign minister said in a statement, “Canada takes its obligations under the Vienna Conventions regarding the safety of diplomats very seriously. Canada remains in close contact with Indian officials in light of some of the promotional material circulating online regarding a protest planned for 8 July, which are unacceptable.”
“We know that the actions of a few do not speak for an entire community, or Canada.”
When asked about reports of Khalistani posters in Canada naming Indian diplomats, External Affairs Minister Dr S Jaishankar had said the issue will be raised with the government of that country.
The “radical, extremist Khalistani ideology” is not good for India or its partner countries such as the US, Canada, the UK and Australia, he had told reporters.
“We have already requested our partner countries like Canada, the US, the UK and Australia where sometimes Khalistani activities happen, not to give space to Khalistanis. Because their (Khalistanis) radical, extremist thinking is neither good for us nor for them nor our relations,” the minister said.
Parade glorifying Indira Gandhi assassination
On 4 June, Brampton saw a parade in which a tableau seemed to celebrate the assassination of former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi – a female figure was shown in a blood-stained white saree, with the hands up, as turbaned men pointed guns at her. A poster behind the scene read “Revenge for the attack on Darbar Sahib”.
The tableau drew strong reactions from India, with External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar registering his disapproval. “Frankly, we are at a loss to understand other than the requirements of vote bank politics why anybody would do this… I think there is a larger underlying issue about the space which is given to separatists, to extremists, to people who advocate violence. I think it is not good for relationships, not good for Canada,” Jaishankar told reporters in New Delhi.
Back in September last year, a Canadian MP blamed ‘Canadian Khalistani extremists’ for a Hindu temple in Toronto being defaced with anti-India graffiti. The BAPS Swaminarayan Mandir, established in 2007, was defaced by “Canadian Khalistani extremists”.
The incident prompted a strong reaction from Canadian MP Chandra Arya, who said that Hindu Canadians are “legitimately concerned” after several incidents of vandalism of their temples.
“Vandalism of Toronto BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir by Canadian Khalistani extremists should be condemned by all. This is not just an isolated event. Canadian Hindu temples have been targeted in the recent past by these kinds of hate crimes. Hindu Canadians are legitimately concerned,” Arya had posted on social media platform X.
Brampton South MP Sonia Sidhu also expressed dismay. “We live in a multicultural and multi-faith community where everyone deserves to feel safe. Those responsible should be located to face the consequences of their actions,” she wrote.
Later, a Ram Mandir in Mississauga was also defaced by ‘Khalistani extremists’ with anti-India graffiti. The temple had then issued a statement, saying, “Vandalism occurred overnight (13 February) at the Shri Ram Mandir in Mississauga, Ontario Canada. We at the Ram Mandir are very disturbed by this occurrence and we are working with the appropriate law enforcement authority on this matter.”
Mahatma Gandhi statue vandalised
A statue of Mahatma Gandhi located at the Vishnu Mandir in Richmond Hill in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) was also vandalised in July last year.
An Indian official told Hindustan Times pro-Khalistani slogans on the statue may have been sprayed to create disharmony between Hindus and Sikhs in Canada.
The vandalism of the 20-foot-tall bronze statue situated in Peace Park saw outrage and condemnation from India.
Calling it a “hate crime” the Indian High Commission in Ottawa had said, “We are deeply anguished by this hate crime that seeks to terrorise the Indian community. It has led to increased concern and insecurity in the Indian community here. We have approached the Canadian government to investigate and ensure perpetrators are brought to justice swiftly.”
Radio host attacked
In February, an Indo-Canadian radio host was attacked by three assailants purportedly for criticising pro-Khalistan elements in Canada, Hindustan Times (HT) reported.
Deepak Punj, host of Frontline Radio, was attacked when he was trying to enter his studio building.
A day before the assault, he had denounced the display of Khalistan flags and anti-India slogans during a vigil in Brampton, a GTA town.
“They asked me if I did a show on this topic, and then attacked me,” he told HT.
Canada’s inaction against pro-Khalistani groups
Canada has for long been considered a safe haven for Khalistan supporters and militant voices accused of terrorism in India, reports the Indian Express.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has also been accused of being soft on Khalistani sympathisers and leaders, a claim he has refuted. Speaking earlier, he said: “Canada has always taken extremely seriously violence and threats of violence. We have always taken serious action against terrorism and we always will.”
“We have an extremely diverse country and freedom of expression is something that we have but we will always make sure that we are pushing back against violence and extremism in all its forms,” he added.
With inputs from agencies