Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau sparked a diplomatic crisis by accusing India’s government of complicity in the June 2023 murder of Hardeep Singh Nijjar, a Canada-based Sikh leader, in suburban Vancouver. The Canadian government alludes publicly to supposed intelligence that it neither details nor releases. Trudeau’s publication of the matter comes against the backdrop of declining popularity and a frosty reception at the G20 Summit.
After Trudeau’s comments, both Canada and India expelled senior diplomats from the other’s embassies. Canada has reportedly sought U.S. support in the spat. The Biden administration denies rebuffing Canada, but appears wary of antagonizing India.
Frankly, Biden is right to avoid giving immediate support to Trudeau.
First, there is the problem of Nijjar himself. Canadians may say he simply was a plumber who was a political activist on the side. The reality is more complicated.
Nijjar lived in India for twenty years, during which he joined the Khalistan Tiger Force—a separatist group waging an insurgency in Punjab, an Indian state twice the size of Massachusetts with a population the size of Florida’s.
The Khalistan movement argues for a separate Sikh state, a goal the militants often seek to impose with violence since the majority of Sikhs reject such religious nationalism. In 1997, Nijjar reportedly fled to Canada using a fake passport under the name Ravi Sharma. Police at the Toronto airport arrested him, but he countered with an asylum claim based on alleged police harassment in India. The courts ultimately rejected his asylum claim, but then he sought citizenship based on a marriage to a Canadian woman. Immigration authorities initially rejected this, too, based on suspicion the marriage was fake. But on appeal, the Canadian government awarded him citizenship and a passport.
In 2015, Pakistan’s Inter-Service Intelligence agency allegedly used Nijjar to help them establish a training camp for Khalistan militants near Mission, British Columbia. India accused Nijjar of involvement in a number of terror acts, including planning the 2007 bombing of a Ludhiana cinema, the 2009 murder of prominent Sikh politician Rulda Singh; a conspiracy to kill Hindu religious leader Kamaldeep Sharma in Jalandhar; involvement in a temple explosion in Patiala in 2010; and a number of assassinations.
In effect, Canada knowingly harbored a person suspected of having plenty of blood on his hands. India is right to be upset by Canada’s tolerance for Sikh extremism. Not only does the country harbor the Khalistan Tiger Force, but it also hosts the World Sikh Organization, Sikhs for Justice, and Babbar Khalsa International, all groups that Indian officials say promote violence and/or have links to foreign powers.
Canada, after all, would be right to be angry if a Quebecois fringe decided the proper way to pursue the goal of Quebec nationhood was to assassinate politicians and bomb cinemas. If such terrorists then based themselves in India, Canada’s rhetoric would be far different.
That might be hypothetical, but the inconsistencies in Trudeau’s approach to violence on his watch are real. Consider the death of Karima Baloch, a Pakistani human rights activist found murdered in Toronto. Canadian police took the lead on the case. Even after suggestions of Pakistani government complicity, Trudeau remained silent.
The Canadians also appear to blame India for what might simply be the manifestation of intra-Sikh violence on their own soil. Nijjar’s death could easily have been reprisal for an earlier killing. In July 2022, two gunmen murdered Ripudaman Singh Malik, a prominent Sikh once accused but then acquitted of the bombings of two Air India flights, in Vancouver. Malik later became president of a large credit union, served as the chair of two schools, and managed the Satnam Religious Prachaar Society. Nijjar protested the group’s printing of Sri Guru Granth Sahib, a major Sikh holy book, without permission from other Sikh figures. Just days before Ripudaman’s murder, Nijjar led a group of Sikhs to storm one of his schools and seize its printing press. The simple reality is the situation is complex.
Could Indian agents have murdered Nijjar? Certainly, though it does not seem the likely scenario. After Saudi agents killed Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul, Turkey provided evidence to back its claims. That Trudeau is unable to do so suggests he may very well have shot from the hip and politicized an investigation.
Trudeau is cynical. Sikh activists are influential in key swing districts for the forthcoming election. Trudeau might simply have wanted to change the domestic political conversation when he accused India, without recognizing that he would create a diplomatic incident. Fair enough. American politicians do the same thing. Donald Trump promised to make Mexico pay for the border wall he hoped to build. As Senator Barack Obama’s running mate, Joe Biden unleashed a fierce broadside against Afghanistani president Hamid Karzai as a proxy for criticism about George W. Bush’s foreign policy prowess. The U.S.-Israel feud grew after a senior Obama administration official called Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu an expletive. In each case, what essentially was rhetoric meant for the domestic audience snowballed into an international incident.
Trudeau’s broadside against India is likely no different. The U.S.-India relationship is simply too important to sacrifice for the venality of a Canadian politician who increasingly shows himself to be shallow and unserious.
Michael Rubin is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.