The Troubled Landscape of India-Canada Relations

Aditi Sapru, Jan 9, 2024

On September 18, 2023, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau claimed that “agents of the government of India” had assassinated a Sikh community leader in Canada in June of the same year [1]. Hardeep Singh Nijjar —the leader in question — was an activist in the Khalistan movement which aims to create an independent Sikh homeland. 


The Khalistan movement gained prominence in India in the 1970s and 1980s. The primary catalyst was the perceived marginalization of the Sikh community and their demand for political and religious autonomy. At the time, the political landscape in India played a crucial role in escalating tensions through the implementation of policies that were perceived as discriminatory against the Sikh community. The movement reached its zenith with the infamous Operation Bluestar in 1984, when the Indian government, under Prime Minister Indra Gandhi, ordered a military operation to flush out armed Sikh militants from inside the Golden Temple in Amritsar. The operation led to significant loss of life, including the death of the Prime Minister herself, which in turn, resulted in years of continued insurgency and violence in Punjab. Militant groups like the Khalistan Commando Force continued to advocate for a sovereign Sikh State which caused a considerable upheaval due to targeted assassinations, bombings, and widespread civil unrest. However, the Khalistan movement eventually waned by the mid-1990s, partly due to internal divisions among Sikh leaders and a concerted effort by the Indian government to address some of the underlying grievances. Still, it remains one of the most devastating but pivotal points in Indian history [2]. 


Since then, India has claimed, on several occasions, that Canada harbors alleged militants in the Khalistan movement, making it difficult for Indian officials to capture the so-called terrorists. The challenge is that India feels that Canada is not taking strong action against individuals linked to the Khalistan movement, and with the potential for a negative resurgence, this inaction remains a threat to Indian security [3]. In light of the claims made by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, this article delves deeper into the socio-political consequences of these accusations and the unsettling position that India is in. 


Indian authorities dismissed these allegations, swiftly taking action by expelling a senior Canadian diplomat in response to the heightened political tension between the two nations. Moreover, both countries exhibited strained relations during the recent G20 Summit held in New Delhi, India when Prime Ministers Narendra Modi and Justin Trudeau did not interact one-on-one. The contentious issue escalated further when Canada decided to cancel an impending trade mission to India in the fall of 2023. The persistent discord and mistrust between the two nations intensified as India temporarily suspended visa services for Canadian citizens, citing "security threats" following the aforementioned claims [4]. This sequence of events draws attention to the challenging diplomatic landscape that India and Canada are currently navigating, highlighting the delicate balance required to address and mitigate such disputes.


However, the bombshell accusations against India sent shockwaves that reverberated past the bilateral Canada-India relationship. Western allies, especially the United States, are caught in the crossfire. The United States and India have recently established themselves as a duo in navigating today’s complex geopolitical landscape. The dynamic relationship between the United States and India is rooted in shared democratic values, economic interests, and mutual security concerns, creating a robust and multifaceted alliance. This partnership extends across critical domains, including defense, trade, counterterrorism, and climate change, showcasing the depth and breadth of their collaboration. In the sphere of defense and security, the two nations have forged a close alliance with a particular focus on maritime security and joint efforts in the Indo-Pacific region. Noteworthy agreements, such as the Defense Technology and Trade Initiative (DTTI) and the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA), underlines the countries’ commitment to enhancing defense cooperation. Trade and investment also form a pivotal aspect of US-India relations, with bilateral trade in goods and services surpassing $160 billion in 2022. The United States stands as India's largest trading partner, emphasizing its economic interdependence. Efforts to boost investment flows emphasize both nations’ commitment to fostering economic collaboration.


Most importantly, the fight against terrorism unites the two nations, leading to close cooperation in intelligence-sharing and joint training exercises. Multiple counterterrorism agreements focus on the  joint commitment to addressing this global challenge that both countries share. Specific collaborations, including the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad), the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF), and the Climate Action and Technology Finance Center (CATF), exemplify the strength and depth of the US-India relationship. As India and the US increasingly cooperate across diverse domains, their partnership is poised to play a pivotal role in addressing global challenges and shaping the international landscape in the years ahead.


However, the diplomatic and economic ties between the United States and Canada also form a cornerstone of North American relations, characterized by robust collaboration and shared values. At the heart of this alliance is a thriving economic partnership, with both nations being each other's largest trading partners. The transformation of NAFTA into the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) further solidifies the regulatory framework governing their extensive cross-border trade in goods and services.


Beyond economic interests, the U.S. and Canada share a deep-rooted diplomatic relationship founded on common values such as democracy and human rights. This partnership extends to security cooperation, encompassing defense matters, intelligence-sharing, and joint efforts in counterterrorism. Both countries are part of the NATO commitment, a military alliance of North American and European countries. NATO, established through the North Atlantic Treaty on April 4, 1949, is a collective defense alliance with a core commitment outlined in Article V. This article declares that any armed attack against a NATO member in Europe or North America is considered an attack against all members, obligating each to take necessary actions, including the use of armed force, to safeguard the security of the North Atlantic area. Historically, the NATO commitment has played a central role in shaping the alliance's purpose and operations throughout its history.


Thus, the pressing question emerges: does the United States lean towards strengthening its alliance with India, a burgeoning global power, thus acknowledging the strategic importance of this partnership? Alternatively, does it maintain fidelity to its enduring commitment within the framework of NATO with Canada, a steadfast and longstanding ally? Navigating this intricate balance demands a nuanced consideration of diplomatic priorities, geopolitical strategies, and the overarching goal of fostering stability and security on a global scale. As the United States grapples with these deliberations, the complex interplay between regional partnerships and longstanding alliances unfolds, highlighting the intricacies inherent in the nation's diplomatic decision-making process.


In recent developments, U.S. authorities have reportedly issued a cautionary message to the Indian government, expressing concerns about its alleged involvement in an assassination plot[5]. President Joe Biden emphasized a somewhat ambiguous stance, stating that those responsible should be held accountable. The U.S. officials maintain their call for additional investigations into the matter, urging Canada to provide more concrete evidence.


This diplomatic exchange stems from suspicions of a potential link to an assassination plot targeting Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, a Sikh separatist leader with dual U.S.-Canadian citizenship. The Indian government had previously banned Pannun's organization in 2019, citing "anti-India activities," and labeled him a terrorist. The incident follows the demise of another Sikh separatist, Hardeep Singh Nijjar. Intriguingly, only two months after Nijjar's death, India's National Investigation Agency registered a new case against Pannun, focusing on recent social media posts related to the national airline, Air India.


The situation stresses the complexity of international relations, with the U.S. urging thorough investigations and clearer evidence, demonstrating the delicate balance in addressing such sensitive matters. As the diplomatic discourse unfolds, the intricacies of navigating accusations, counterterrorism efforts, and cross-border implications become apparent. The evolving nature of these developments adds a layer of uncertainty to the already nuanced dynamics between the U.S., India, and Canada.


In unraveling the intricate web of the India-Canada relationship, recent events have thrust both nations into an unforeseen diplomatic quagmire. The shocking accusations made by Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, coupled with the historical context of the Khalistan movement, add depth to the current discord. As the specter of distrust looms, the repercussions extend beyond the India-Canada dynamics. The sudden freeze in relations has implications for Western allies, especially the United States, caught in the crossfire of two key partners. The U.S.-India alliance, rooted in shared democratic values and mutual interests, contrasts with the essential NATO commitment binding the U.S. and Canada. The delicate task of balancing regional partnerships and longstanding alliances becomes apparent as the United States grapples with intricate diplomatic decisions.


As uncertainty prevails, the future of the India-Canada relationship remains uncertain, with significant ramifications for global geopolitics. The delicate dance between regional alliances and longstanding commitments underscores the complexity of diplomatic decision-making, prompting all stakeholders to consider ways to mend the recent strain in this historically significant relationship.


[1] Council on Foreign Relations. Canada-India tensions over killing of Sikh separatist: What to know. Council on Foreign Relations. September 25th, 2023.

[2] Mogul, R. Canada and India are enmeshed in an unprecedented diplomatic row. here’s how it happened. CNN. September 20th, 2023.

[3] India might drag Canada to FATF for inaction over terror funding: Report. WION. October 25th, 2023.

[4] Yousif, N. India to resume visa services for Canadians. BBC News. October 25th, 2023.

[5] Zargar, A. R. U.S. talks to India about reported link to assassination plot against Sikh separatist Gurpatwant Singh Pannun. CBS News. November 23th, 2023.