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Canada needs to see India – not just the diaspora

Relations between Canada and India are at their lowest ebb. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s statement to Canadian lawmakers alleging that Indian agents killed Khalistani activist Hardeep Singh Nijjar this June has caused relations to plunge to a fresh low. Diplomats have been expelled. There is little hope of reconciliation which will now require both sides to have a serious, open and layered political dialogue over the role of Canada’s Indian diaspora, their politicisation, and its effects on Canada-India relations. The current impasse has been precipitated by Nijjar’s murder. Yet, the real culprit is a toxic form of diaspora politics that involves Canadian political parties engaging with and appeasing groups and their jaundiced views of their countries of origin because of their ostensible political value.

Canada-India relations have see-sawed over the last 50 years. During the Cold War, bonhomie developed between Ottawa and New Delhi due to their shared commonwealth status and convergent views on the importance of the United Nations, multilateralism, and advancing global development. Differences over Cold War crises in Korea, Hungary, and Vietnam strained the relationship. India’s nuclear programme tested ties further. In the 1980s, Ottawa’s interest in India was rekindled by rising Indian immigration. With limited prospects for trade or security relations, there was no basis for meaningful diplomatic engagement. Since then, however, much work has gone into reviving the relationship from its nadir in 1998, following Ottawa’s repudiation of India’s nuclear power status. Investment and trade form the heart of the relationship now, with considerable scope for growth. These issues and the bilateral relationship are held hostage by specific diaspora elements that harbour a deep hatred toward India, abhor its territorial unity and strive to Balkanise it.

Trudeau’s allegations are troubling and unprecedented. True or not, accusing another G20 state of carrying out an extra-territorial killing is a game-changer. Ottawa was ostensibly receiving and corroborating intelligence before raising the issue with Indian officials last week. India’s rejection possibly led to Trudeau’s escalation, kick-starting a new parliamentary session with this explosive statement. It is inconceivable that relevant intelligence was not vetted thoroughly before “accusations” were made. That Trudeau made such a public announcement in parliament before adequately exploring other options suggests Canadian officials would have had sufficient evidence to back their claims or that Trudeau had no qualms deep-sixing Canada-India relations.

That said, Trudeau’s references to the “rule of law” are myopic as it elides consideration of the effects Nijjar and his separatist clan had through their activities in Canada and India. That some of them were propagating violence against Indian diplomats was largely swept under the rug. Those concerns still exist and are possibly heightened by this news. That some of them were brazenly celebrating the death of a former Indian prime minister at a parade was condemned — but not widely. That some of them continue vandalising places of worship in Canada and blithely disregarded Indian lawmaking processes through the farmer protests last summer in India. Lest we forget, Khalistani separatists bombed Air India 182 in 1985, the largest terrorist act in Canadian history. Trudeau’s “rule of law” pronouncements sound hollow when he highlights the plight of Khalistani activists and not those they have harmed.

Ottawa’s, particularly this government’s, confounding deference to Khalistani groups and other diaspora elements has characterised its foreign policy. To be sure, both political parties — Liberals and Conservatives — have pandered to diaspora groups that use Canadian soil to undertake activities that threaten the interests and security of other countries. This pernicious form of diaspora politics has prevented Canadian governments from ring-fencing national security and foreign policy priorities from short-term electoral pressures. That must change. Diaspora politics cannot be the lens through which Ottawa perceives New Delhi and engages with it.

The views of pro-Khalistan groups have vexed the Indian government. No stranger to separatist politics, New Delhi has disdained transnational currents that question its territorial integrity or deride its treatment of ethnic minorities. Those currents are only accelerating, creating a major problem for Indian foreign policy that has had a strategic view of most diaspora groups and what they bring to India. Diaspora engagement has intensified under the Modi government with efforts made to compel them to invest in India’s economic development while leveraging their support to consolidate the BJP’s political dominance. Wealthy NRIs are key vectors of remittances, networks, and ideas into India. Undoubtedly, the diaspora’s cultivation and support have advanced India’s strategic ties with the United States and propelled national projects like Make in India and Digital India. Yet, there’s another aspect to this engagement that requires deft handling and management.

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Increasingly, Modi’s foreign visits are met by civil society groups clamouring for human rights. Recent pro-Khalistan protests in the US, UK, Canada, and Australia have become rancorous and violent. Caste discrimination is becoming a fraught fault line across US firms, universities, and organisations. Digital technologies have transformed how Indian immigrants abroad engage with their kin with cleavages in terms of political outlook, linguistic choices, and ideological affinity. How ideas related to these matters spread online could have repercussions across borders as we have seen in the Khalistani case. The risks of diaspora groups are magnified and amplified in the social media age. New Delhi has to refrain from relying on bromides that highlight engaging and deploying the Indian diaspora to serve national interests. Some groups actively work against the interests of the Indian state and foreign policy.

It will be hard to mend this relationship. Distrust dates back decades. So do the resentments and grievances. Without India, Trudeau’s Indo-Pacific strategy is obsolete. What is perhaps fortuitous is that both countries share interests in defending the international order, balancing China’s rise and behaviour, cooperating on issues like climate change, global health, misuse of digital technologies, regulating artificial intelligence, and alleviating burdens imposed on developing countries. But dealing with these challenges requires a political compact that addresses how both countries view Canada’s Indian diaspora and mitigating its worst impulses, particularly those fanning separatist embers in India. Without this, Ottawa and Delhi’s great distance will be measured not just by geography but disposition.

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The writer is Research Fellow, Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore

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