WASHINGTON: The US has said it supports Canada’s efforts to probe the killing of a Sikh separatist leader on its soil — in which Ottawa alleges India has been involved — and urges New Delhi to cooperate in the investigation.
“We believe a fully transparent comprehensive investigation is the right approach so that we can all know exactly what happened, and of course, we encourage India to cooperate with that,” John Kirby, spokesman for the White House National Security Council (NSC), said while speaking to CNN.
Canada’s allegation, centring on the killing of Sikh separatist leader Hardeep Singh Nijjar in June in Surrey, was made on Monday, with Ottawa expelling India’s top intelligence agent over the matter.
Nijjar supported a Sikh homeland in the form of an independent Khalistani state and was designated by India as a “terrorist” in July 2020. He had denied those charges, according to the World Sikh Organisation of Canada, a nonprofit organisation that says it defends the interests of Canadian Sikhs.
Canada said it was “actively pursuing credible allegations” linking Indian government agents to the murder of the Sikh separatist leader.
Meanwhile, PM Justin Trudeau said in an emergency statement to the House of Commons that any involvement of a foreign government in the killing of a Canadian citizen was “an unacceptable violation of our sovereignty”.
He has also demanded that India treat with “utmost seriousness” the bombshell revelation of its probe into the murder.
In response, India expelled on Tuesday a Canadian diplomat with five days’ notice to leave the country.
New Delhi also dismissed the Canadian accusation as “absurd and motivated” and urged it instead to take legal action against anti-Indian elements operating from its soil.
While speaking to CNN, Kirby termed Canada’s allegation “very serious” and said US President Joe Biden was mindful of the accusation.
Asked whether the US knew what intelligence Canada based its allegation on, Kirby replied: “I am going to be careful about what I say here to preserve the sanctity of this investigation and leave it for Canada to talk about the underpinning information here and what more they are trying to learn.
“We want to respect that process and it’s their investigation.”
To a question about possible repercussions if it was proved that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi ordered the killing, he said: “Let’s not get ahead of where we are. There’s an active investigation and we think it needs to be fully transparent and comprehensive.
“We know that Canada will work to that end. Again, we urge India to cooperate with that investigation … Once we have all the facts and we have conclusions that we can draw from that, then you can start to look at recommendations or behaviours you might want to pursue.”
Separately, another NSC spokesperson, Adrienne Watson, denied reports that the US had “rebuffed” Canada over the matter.
She shared a post on X by Washington Post, which said: “President Biden has aggressively wooed India’s Modi as a counterweight to China. That effort is now complicated by Canada’s explosive allegation that Indian officials may have been behind the slaying of a Sikh separatist leader in British Columbia.”
Reports that we rebuffed Canada in any way on this are flatly false. We are coordinating and consulting with Canada closely on this issue. This is a serious matter and we support Canada’s ongoing law enforcement efforts. We are also engaging the Indian government. https://t.co/kiTFuFm0nH
— Adrienne Watson (@NSC_Spox) September 20, 2023
Reacting to it, Watson said: “Reports that we rebuffed Canada in any way on this are flatly false. We are coordinating and consulting with Canada closely on this issue. This is a serious matter and we support Canada’s ongoing law enforcement efforts. We are also engaging the Indian government.”
India’s ‘network of extra-territorial killings’
Earlier today, Foreign Office (FO) spokesperson Mumtaz Zahra Baloch said the Canadian accusation showed New Delhi’s “network of extra-territorial killings” had gone global, state broadcaster Radio Pakistan reported.
The matter was brought up during a press briefing in Islamabad where the FO spokesperson highlighted that the Indian intelligence agency, Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), had been “actively involved in abductions and assassinations in South Asia” the Radio Pakistan report said.
It quoted Baloch as saying that Pakistan had remained a “target of a series of targeted killings and espionage by RAW”.
“In December last year, Pakistan released a comprehensive dossier providing concrete and irrefutable evidence of India’s involvement in the Lahore attack of June 2021. The attack was planned and executed by Indian intelligence,” she said, adding that in 2016, a high-ranking Indian military officer Kulbhushan Jadhav confessed to his involvement in directing, financing and executing terror and sabotage in Pakistan.
She termed “India’s assassination of a Canadian national on Canadian soil a clear violation of international law and the UN principle of state sovereignty”, according to the report.
“It is also a reckless and irresponsible act that calls into question India’s reliability as a credible international partner and its claims for enhanced global responsibilities,” she added.
Replying to a question about statements by Indian civil and military leadership against Pakistan, she said Pakistan had the capacity and will to defend itself.
“It has done in the past and it will continue to do so.”
On Tuesday, Foreign Secretary Syrus Qazi said Pakistan was not surprised by the Canadian accusation and the world must recognise the ways of the country it considered “a supposedly indispensable ally”.
Qazi’s remarks came during a press briefing at the United Nations Mission in New York, where he is accompanying interim Prime Minister Anwaarul Haq Kakar to attend the 78th UN General Assembly session.
“We are aware of the nature of our eastern neighbour, we know what they are capable of … so it is not a surprise for us.
“We caught [one of their] serving naval intelligence officers on our soil. He is in our custody and admitted that he came here to create instability and spread evil,” he said when asked for a comment on the allegation levelled against India.
“There must be some truth to the Canadian premier’s allegation, that’s why they levelled it,” he said, adding that the situation was developing, “but going by our experience, we are not surprised”.
Answering a follow-up question, the foreign secretary maintained that most of the time, Indian involvement was found in instability in Pakistan. “Kulbhushan Jadhav] is a living example of it, and the world needs to know,” he added.
In response to a question about conflicts with India, Qazi refused that Pakistan’s responses had been defensive.
“If there is any country that understands India correctly, that’s us. And we are the only country in many respects that is not afraid of India,” he further stated, highlighting that Pakistan had been resolutely protecting its freedom against a rival country 60 times bigger in size.
“We have been doing this for the past 70 years … and will do it again when the need arises.”
Again referring to the India-Canada row, he added, “This is no surprise for us, but the world must realise what are the ways of the country they have made their supposedly indispensable ally.”
India, Canada update travel advisory
Today, India warned its citizens against visiting parts of Canada, the latest salvo in a diplomatic row over allegations that New Delhi was involved in Nijjar’s killing.
Without explicitly referring to the row, India’s foreign ministry said it was concerned for the safety of its citizens in Canada because of “politically condoned hate crimes and criminal violence”.
— Arindam Bagchi (@MEAIndia) September 20, 2023
“Threats have particularly targeted Indian diplomats and sections of the Indian community who oppose the anti-India agenda,” a ministry statement said.
“Indian nationals are therefore advised to avoid travelling to regions and potential venues in Canada that have seen such incidents.”
The advisory did not name specific cities or locations for Indians to avoid.
Earlier, Canada also updated its advisory for travel to India, with Indian media reporting that Ottawa had warned its citizens against visiting occupied Kashmir due to a militancy threat.
A statement on the Canadian government’s website, updated on Monday, said: “Avoid all travel to the Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir due to the unpredictable security situation. There is a threat of terrorism, militancy, civil unrest and kidnapping. This advisory excludes travelling to or within the Union Territory of Ladakh.”
India’s opposition dismisses Canada’s suspicions
India’s main opposition Congress party has backed the government’s rejection of Canada’s suspicions that New Delhi’s agents had links to Nijjar’s murder, and urged a stand against threats to the country’s sovereignty.
Congress spokespersons backed what they called India’s “fight against terrorism” and criticised Trudeau.
“Trudeau’s defence of declared terrorist Hardeep Singh Nijjar is absolutely shameful and shows how much the present Canadian regime is in bed with Khalistani sympathisers,” Abhishek Manu Singhvi, a senior Congress lawmaker, posted on social media platform X, formerly known as Twitter.
Trudeau's defense of declared terrorist Hardeep Singh Nijjar is absolutely shameful & shows how much the present Canadian regime is in bed with Khalistani Sympathisers. Keep going this way & Qubec Banega Khalistan.
— Abhishek Singhvi (@DrAMSinghvi) September 19, 2023
Sikh separatists demand that their homeland “Khalistan”, meaning “the land of the pure”, be created out of Punjab. Its creation was the goal of a bloody Sikh insurgency in the 1980s and 1990s in India’s northern state of Punjab during which tens of thousands were killed.
As the ruling party at the time, Congress led the fight against the separatists and eventually suppressed the campaign, but New Delhi remains wary of any revival.
“Our country’s interests and concerns must be kept paramount at all times,” Jairam Ramesh, the chief spokesperson of Congress, said in a posting on X.
“The Indian National Congress has always believed that our country’s fight against terrorism has to be uncompromising, especially when terrorism threatens India’s sovereignty, unity and integrity.”
The Indian National Congress has always believed that our country's fight against terrorism has to be uncompromising, especially when terrorism threatens India's sovereignty, unity and integrity. Our country's interests and concerns must be kept paramount at all times.#Canada
— Jairam Ramesh (@Jairam_Ramesh) September 19, 2023
The insurgency also took the lives of key Congress leaders prime minister Indira Gandhi, who was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards in 1984, and Punjab chief minister Beant Singh, who was killed in a bomb blast by Sikh separatists in 1995.
The row over the Sikh leader’s killing is the latest in an escalating row between India and Canada.
There were signs of a brewing crisis before PM Trudeau revealed the probe into Nijjar’s death on Monday.
Modi had expressed “strong concerns about continuing anti-India activities of extremist elements in Canada” during his meeting with Trudeau at the G20.
Canada had also suspended negotiations for a free-trade agreement with India, and last week its trade minister cancelled a trip to the country planned for October.
’Shocked, but not surprised
A representative of the World Sikh Organisation of Canada, Mukhbir Singh, has said his countrymen may have been “shocked” by Trudeau’s assertion “but it was no surprise to the Sikh community”.
“For decades, India has targeted Sikhs in Canada with espionage, disinformation and now murder,” he alleged.
Balraj Singh Nijjar, son of the slain leader, said: “It was just a matter of time for when the truth would come out.”
He added, referring to government authorities: “Hopefully, you can take this a step further and get specific individuals.”
The head of Canada’s New Democratic Party, Jagmeet Singh, an ally of Trudeau, called for the inclusion of India in a probe launched in September of alleged interference in Canadian affairs by other countries, especially China.
“In my experience, as a Sikh Canadian, there have always been suspicions that India was interfering in the democratic rights of Canadians. Yesterday’s announcement confirms that these suspicions are valid,” Singh said.