Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Reassessing Canada-India Relations: The Fallout from the Nijjar Assassination and Its Impact on Democracy and Sovereignty

On June 18, 2023, the assassination of Sikh separatist leader Hardeep Singh Nijjar in Surrey, British Columbia, escalated into a major diplomatic crisis between Canada and India. Following the murder outside a Sikh cultural center, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau alleged a “credible link” between Indian government agents and the assassination, leading to the expulsion of a senior Indian diplomat. In retaliation, on September 21, India announced the suspension of visa processing for Canadian citizens, plunging relations into a deadlock.

If the allegations are true, India’s involvement not only constitutes a serious violation of Canadian sovereignty but also raises substantial concerns about broader international conduct principles. The act of assassinating a foreign national on Canadian soil is a blatant infringement of Canada’s sovereignty, as Trudeau articulated, deeming any foreign government involvement in “the murder of a Canadian citizen on Canadian soil” as an “unacceptable violation of Canada’s sovereignty.” This action undermines the sanctity of diplomatic relations and sets a dangerous precedent in international interactions.

The role India allegedly played in this case suggests a worrying pattern of transnational suppression of dissent. If these allegations hold, it indicates India’s willingness to extend its influence beyond its borders to silence or even eliminate dissenters. Scholars have pointed out the irony in the Conservative Party’s recent rhetoric about “opposing foreign interference” in Canada’s elections, only to have a seemingly contradictory stance in a more egregious case of alleged “cross-border assassination.”

Canadian accusations that India may have been involved in the killing of a Sikh separatist leader in suburban Vancouver.

This incident casts doubts on the alignment of values between India and its Western allies. India, often seen as an important partner in the democratic world, is showing significant divergence in upholding democratic values and human rights norms. The traditional Hindu cultural values upheld by some Indian institutions appear to be at odds with the modern values of liberal democracies. CNN notes the concern among experts that the rift between Canada and India, key partners of the USA, could escalate into an unprecedented dispute, placing other Western nations in an uncomfortable position.

The incident poses serious questions about India’s status as a member of the democratic camp. Should the allegations of India’s involvement in such a heinous act be substantiated, it would challenge India’s commitment to the democratic principles of sovereignty, rule of law, and respect for human rights. Scholar Lou Chunhao further points out that the intensified discord between India and Canada over Nijjar’s death also exposes some irreconcilable differences between India and countries like the USA and Canada in the realms of ideology and values.

For Canada, this situation underscores the need to reassess its diplomatic relationship with India, prioritizing the safety and security of its citizens. The act of foreign intervention, especially one as grave as assassination on its soil, necessitates a robust and independent response from Canada. Trudeau, speaking at a press conference during the UN General Assembly in New York, stated, “Undoubtedly, India is an increasingly important nation with which we need to continue cooperating… We do not wish to provoke or escalate conflicts. However, we are resolute in maintaining the rule of law and protecting Canadian citizens. Thus, we call on the Indian government to collaborate with us, establishing a process to uncover and reveal the truth of the incident.” This event could be a pivotal moment for Canada to assert its sovereign rights and reaffirm its stance on international law and human rights, setting a precedent for its future diplomatic endeavors.