Murder Allegations Plunge Canada-India Relations to Lowest Point in Decades

Canada’s diplomatic relationship with India went into a deep freeze this week after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau stated on Monday that there are “credible allegations” that agents of the Indian government were involved in the June 2023 killing of Hardeep Singh Nijjar in Surrey, B.C. Nijjar was a leader of Canada’s Sikh community and a vocal advocate of an independent Sikh homeland in northern India, which Sikh separatists refer to as Khalistan. He was shot and killed in his vehicle by two assailants who have not been arrested or publicly identified. The Indian government has vigorously rejected the allegations and expelled a senior Canadian diplomat in a tit-for-tat move after Ottawa did the same.

A complicated relationship

The diplomatic fallout over this week’s announcement is the latest twist in the Canada-India relationship, which has been strained for decades, largely due to the 1985 Air India bombings, which killed 331 people, most of them Canadians. According to a 2005 Canadian government report, the bombings were the result of a conspiracy by Khalistani separatists, some based in Canada. A main suspect in the bombings, Ripudaman Singh Malik, who was acquitted by a Canadian court in 2005, was killed in Surrey, B.C., last year. Two suspects have been arrested, but there is no indication that the Indian government was linked to Malik’s murder. In 2020, New Delhi designated Nijjar a “terrorist” and, in 2022, accused him of being involved in an alleged attack on a Hindu priest in India. Nijjar rejected the accusations.

Possible global reverberations

The fallout of this week’s news could have wider international ramifications. Three of Canada’s closest allies – Australia, the U.K., and the U.S. – have been trying to cultivate closer ties with New Delhi, driven partly by commercial interests but also by a desire for India to be a geopolitical counterweight to China.

In weighing in on the revelations about India’s possible role, leaders of all three countries have tried to walk a fine line, publicly expressing concern about the seriousness of the allegations, while also trying to avoid derailing their relationships with New Delhi. Meanwhile, bilateral talks towards a partial free trade agreement between Canada and India are now frozen, and the future trajectory of what has been a growing trade and investment relationship faces new uncertainties.

On Wednesday, the Indian government warned its citizens, especially Indian international students, to exercise “utmost caution” about “politically-condoned” hate crimes if travelling to Canada.