Indo-Canadian Relations & Nijjar-Pannun Saga: A Call for Diplomatic Resolution

Indo-Canadian Relations & Nijjar-Pannun Saga: A Call for Diplomatic Resolution

Will the US accept a departmental enquiry and some administrative action? They may avoid seeking extradition or in lieu prosecution of the guilty by India. This is where the broader positive drift of Indo-US relations would guide the resolution of this case.

K C SinghUpdated: Friday, December 01, 2023, 10:57 PM IST
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Indo-Canadian Relations & Nijjar-Pannun Saga: A Call for Diplomatic Resolution | Representational Image

The Nijjar-Pannun saga, about India’s declared “terrorists”, had been surfacing periodically. Mainly it involved finger-pointing by Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, and Indian retaliation by restricting consular and diplomatic activities. The US part of the story was playing out subtly as an indictment had been sealed by a New York court. Repeated demarches by high level US interlocutors indicated that something was brewing which, unlike the Indo-Canadian public spat, was being handled through confidential diplomacy.

Canadian Prime Minister & Indian Authorities Engage in War of Words

The background is the dissonance between the two North American powers and India over elements of the Sikh diaspora advocating secession by Sikh-majority Indian state Punjab. While the Anglophone nations dismissed Indian complaints as overreaction to over-enthusiastic exercise of right to free speech, India saw a serious international conspiracy to dismember India. Pakistan was seen as steering it much like in the 1980s. For the BJP, months away from sensitive state and then Lok Sabha elections, hypernationalism is an important crutch.

Surprise Entry of Amrit Pal Singh Triggers Concerns about Indian Unity

Most Punjabis, Sikh or Hindu, took the noise about Khalistan abroad as mere distraction. Then in 2022 suddenly Amrit Pal Singh, an unknown Dubai resident, surfaced in Punjab. He adopted the garb and language of late Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale. With the newly elected AAP government surprised and the union government silent, the new entrant began attracting village folks in small but growing numbers. The script for declaring a serious threat to Indian unity and integrity began unfolding. Eventually Amrit Pal and his key followers were detained under the severe Unlawful Activities Protection Act (UAPA). Concomitantly the distant noise of Khalistan supporters got louder and threatening. The tension between elements of the Sikh diaspora and the Indian diplomatic and consular missions in Canada, UK and the US worsened.

That is when those countries and India needed a serious discussion about their differing perceptions of the threat potential of Khalistan activists. Canada was the most guilty of pandering to these elements. India saw political dependence of the Trudeau government on pro-Khalistan elements, including Jagmeet Singh, an ally and leader of the New Democratic Party.

Indo-Canadian Relations Strain as U.S. Indictment Reveals Intricacies

The Indo-Canadian relations were already on life support when Hardeep Singh Nijjar was killed, exiting a Gurdwara he ran, on 18 June. When Prime Minister Trudeau named an Indian connection, Indo-Canadian relations entered a crisis mode.

However, a more serious situation developed after the unsealing in New York, on November 29, of the indictment in the United States of America v Nikhil Gupta case. The US got the accused arrested when he visited the Czech Republic. The indictment rests on a sting operation by the Americans, collating electronic, telephonic and pictorial evidence.

Firstly, the indictment explains Canadian inability so far to provide India “evidence” after their original allegation. The Nijjar-related evidence emerges from their sting in the attempt on Khalistan activist Gurpatwant Singh Pannun’s life. The India-based handler revealed linkages in the two cases, as part of a grand scheme to silence Khalistan proponents. When Trudeau used the Nikhil Gupta arrest to defend his past accusation, India simply advised him to curb activities of Khalistan activists.

India's Reputational Damage and the Path Forward

What can India do to counter the reputational damage? Because the US has both the criminal, who may confess and do a plea bargain, and other fool-proof evidence India has been compelled to launch a high-level enquiry. Fixing of responsibility is unavoidable. But will the US accept a departmental enquiry and some administrative action? They may avoid seeking extradition or in lieu prosecution of the guilty by India. This is where the broader positive drift of Indo-US relations would guide the resolution of this case. President Joe Biden had vowed to make an example of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman over the brutal murder of Jamal Khashoggi in 2018. Instead he has been forced to shake his hand.

India and the US also need to sit down and resolve their differences over Khalistan activists, whom India sees as provocateurs but the west finds merely misusing freedom of speech. The US does not see Pannun as a “terrorist”.’ Simply ignoring these differences or relegating them to a talking point in bilateral parleys cannot go on. Likewise the US has not made an issue out of the Indian democratic recession and BJP’s majoritarianism. Did some folks in Delhi misread it as a license to even silence those challenging Indian sovereignty from safe havens in the west?

The moral is that between friendly democratic nations there exist red-lines. Any intelligence operation abroad must follow a careful cost-benefit analysis. That calculation appears to have gone awry in the Nijjar-Pannun cases. India claims a seat at the global high table. The price of that includes observing certain codes of international conduct. It is being argued that the US sanctions killings abroad, especially using drones. The US does it in ungoverned or misruled parts of the world against designated terrorists, not in a fellow NATO or P-5 state. Someone in the Indian establishment forgot that.

KC Singh is former secretary, Ministry of External Affairs.

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