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Mainstream, VOL 61 No 41 October 7, 2023

India-Canada Diplomatic Tension & Electoral Politics! | Nilofar Suhrawardy

Saturday 7 October 2023, by Nilofar Suhrawardy


by Nilofar Suhrawardy

The degree to which diplomatic relations can at times be subject to political factors is probably being manifested by tension surfacing in ties between India and Canada. It is possible, if Prime Ministers of both countries were not guided by their political plans for next elections in their respective countries, they may have given greater importance to handling the issue more diplomatically and it may not have led to any bitterness between them. Just as Prime Minister Narendra Modi is concerned about returning to power in 2024, his Canadian counterpart Justin Trudeau aims to contest again in 2025. Yes, certainly, Trudeau has erred diplomatically by saying that Canada was looking at “credible allegations potentially linking” role of India in murder of Hardeep Singh Nijjar. He was murdered in Canada on June 18. From his angle, he was probably guided by political factors while saying this and hardly concerned about its diplomatic impact on Canada’s ties with India. Nevertheless, should India have reacted to his comments as strongly as it has? In this context, while Trudeau’s comments have been guided by domestic politics, can the same be said about India? To a degree, yes but at the same time chances of India gaining diplomatically and/or politically seem extremely limited. India could have perhaps exercised greater diplomatic finesse regarding the issue. What is happening in Canada is responsibility of Trudeau government and not that of Indian state.

But the tendency to blame others prevails when leaders seem to be caught in a politically desperate situation at home. Not surprisingly, soon after levying allegation, Canada expelled an Indian diplomat and India did the same. Latest reports suggest that India has told Canada that it must repatriate around 40 diplomats by October 10 and if it doesn’t their diplomatic immunity will be withdrawn. Politically speaking, Canada is not a neighbouring country, diplomatic moves against which have strong chances of gaining support within India. Besides, irrespective of whatever be political importance of “Khalistan”- issue in Canada, it bears little significance at present in India. In fact, by going overboard on this front, certain leaders - perhaps unintentionally- are only helping it gain more publicity as well as media coverage.

Canadian citizen Nijjar (45), a Sikh born in India, was known for his “Khalistani” sentiments and had earlier reportedly been declared by India as a “terrorist.” To a degree, certain groups/individuals settled in western countries- with their roots traced to India- appear to be extra-concerned about asserting their specific identities, including religious, on specific occasions and/or for reasons. This is partly due to numerical increase of Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs and Christians in USA, UK and Canada, particularly from East, including India and other countries. This has also been reflected by gradual increase in their places of worship - Hindu temples, Gurdwaras and mosques - as well as restaurants over the past few decades in Canada also. But there is a difference between being extremely religious and/or a terrorist. A little more importance needs to be given to differentiating between extremism of any group and/or individual and labelling of the same as terrorist, particularly when it borders on religion. Besides, recent history has been marked by a new importance being acquired by their political voice, not just as voters but also as political representatives.

The preceding point is marked by Canada’s New Democratic Party (NDP) being headed at present by Jagmeet Singh, a Sikh. He is the first non-White head of a major Canadian political party. Trudeau was re-elected in 2021 but without a majority. He allied with Singh’s NDP for its support. It may also be noted, outside Punjab in India, Canada is the country where Sikhs have the largest population of around 770,000. Yes, there have been reports of Sikhs having displayed support for Khalistan and also anger following murder of Nijjar. However, this does not imply that each Canadian Sikh is a terrorist and/or whosoever has displayed emotional outburst over Nijjar’s murder as well as regarding Khalistan-issue should be suspected or labelled as a militant.

Besides, politicking in Punjab has hardly been affected by Khalistan-issue in recent years. However, this does not imply that Sikhs have not taken note of incidents of communal violence having occurred in other places of country. The hard reality that they have also been targeted in the past cannot be ignored and/or forgotten by them. It is possible, Sikhs and other minorities of Indian origin, settled outside India have been disturbed by fear of communal frenzy surfacing again in India. In addition to need for educational as well as employment opportunities attracting most Indians, Canada has been opted for by minorities here, to escape communal tension in India. There has been a 260% increase of Indians who have become permanent residents in Canada over a decade. The number has risen from 32,828 in 2013 to 118,095 in 2022, as per data of National Foundation for American Policy (NFAP) analysis of Immigration, Refugees and Citizen Canada. It is important to note, Sikhs are not the only Indians settled there. In the Indo-Canadian population, while Sikhs represent 34%, Hindus-27%, Muslims-17%, Christians are 16%.

Exercise of communal extremism for political reasons continues to be a pet strategy of right-winged elements, including those associated with saffron brigade, when elections are around the corner. To a degree, crisis in Manipur as well as communal violence in Haryana may be viewed as reflective of this political trend. Comparatively, chances of Sikhs in Punjab being either entrapped by and/or falling victim to similar communal moves may be viewed as extremely limited. Nevertheless, hype raised in recent past about Khalistan-issue is probably suggestive of such strategies being tried. Nijjar’s murder may be a part of this trend.

Politically, India and Canada may be said to have no option but give in to domestic factors deciding their moves. At least, this seems to be suggested by Trudeau taking note of India being “potentially” linked with Nijjar’s murder. If as mentioned earlier, parliamentary elections in India were not scheduled within less than a year from now, the present government may not have reacted strongly to what Trudeau said in Canada. India’s reaction may also be an attempt to divert Indians’ attention from other disturbing issues. And perhaps the present government seems over-confident of turning the diplomatic tide in its favour. Chances of India gaining support of other western countries, including USA and UK, against Canada may said to be fairly limited. Considering that New Delhi has not been very forthcoming in taking note of concern expressed by the same countries about issues of humanitarian crisis, targeting of minorities and so forth within India, they may not respond to Indian criticism of intra-Canada affairs as India desires. On its front, Trudeau government cannot afford to ignore Sikh voice/vote on its soil not just democratically but more for its political need. Politically, within India and Canada, more Indians have been disturbed than pleased by diplomatic tension between the two countries leading to problems for them. This includes those aspiring to move to Canada for higher education, jobs and/or other opportunities. Besides, those who have relatives in Canada are fairly worried about problems they may be facing because of diplomatic tension between the two countries. The question of this “strategy” increasing votes or political favour for Indian leaders hardly prevails. What is viewed as a “wise” move by India has probably stronger chances of being a shot misfired, politically as well as diplomatically. If Canada was a neighbouring country, the impact would certainly have carried greater weight, politically and diplomatically!

(Nilofar Suhrawardy is a senior journalist and writer with specialization in communication studies and nuclear diplomacy. She has come out with several books. These include:— Modi’s Victory, A Lesson for the Congress…? (2019); Arab Spring, Not Just a Mirage! (2019), Image and Substance, Modi’s First Year in Office (2015) and Ayodhya Without the Communal Stamp, In the Name of Indian Secularism (2006))

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