Khalistani protestors take to San Jose streets

In the wake of the diplomatic row between India and Canada over the shooting of Khalistani separatist Hardeep Singh Nijjar, protests are spreading among Khalistan supporters not just in Canada, but also on the streets of San Jose.

On the afternoon of September 24, around 2.30 pm, Khalistani supporters on trucks festooned with pro-Khalistan banners paraded up Quimby Road in the San Jose suburbs chanting ” Hail Khalistan…we will rule.”

This protest comes on the heels of another controversy in July when Khalistan supporters were blamed for an arson attack on the Indian Consulate in San Francisco. Alleged Khalistani extremists sprayed graffiti and set ablaze the front of the Indian consulate to protest the killing of Khalistani separatist leader Hardeep Singh Nijjar.

Who shot Hardeep Singh Nijjar?

Nijjar, an Indian-born Canadian Sikh, and an active proponent of the Khalistan movement was shot dead on 18 June in the parking lot of a gurdwara, in the city of Surrey, British Columbia in Canada. India had declared Nijjar a terrorist in 2020. 

The controversial leader now is the catalyst for the fallout between India and Canada, after Canadian Prime Minister Trudeau made allegations in the Canadian Parliament about  India’s possible involvement in Nijjar’s killing. He said that Canada has credible information on the Indian government’s “potential involvement” in Nijjar’s death.

India, on its part, promptly refuted the allegations by calling them ‘absurd.’ Since then, against the backdrop of the G20 Summit in India and after, diplomatic relations between the two countries have plummeted.

Since Nijjar’s killing, tensions between the Sikh and Hindu communities in Canada have flared up, its ripple effect spreading to separatist enclaves outside the country. In San Francisco and London, for example, protestors attacked the Indian consulates.

Khalistani protestors on the streets of San Jose

Indo-Canadian diplomatic relations plummet

Tensions between India and Canada have been escalating since last Monday, September 18, after Trudeau made the allegation and sought India’s cooperation in the investigation. The diplomatic row heated up on Friday, September 22, when the United States entered the fray. U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken expressed deep concern at a press conference in New York about Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s allegations of India’s possible involvement in Nijjar’s killing. 

Blinken called for cooperation from ‘our Indian friends’ and said the U.S. was coordinating with Canada as the investigation moves forward. He stated that the U.S. is “extremely vigilant about any instances of alleged transnational repression” urging that “any country that might consider engaging in such acts not do so.” 

A timeline of the diplomatic row

Here’s a timeline of events surrounding the India-Canada diplomatic row: 

  • September 2 – Canada unilaterally pauses the Free Trade Treaty negotiations with India.
  • September 10 – At the G20 Summit in India, Trudeau attends all the working sessions but skips the President’s reception for the world leaders.  
  • September 18 – Trudeau makes the allegation in the Canadian Parliament. India refutes the allegations. 
  • September 19 – Canada expels a top Indian diplomat in response to the “intelligence”. India responds by expelling a senior Canadian diplomat. 
  • September 21 – Trudeau reiterates his allegations on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly meeting in New York. 
  • September 21 – India suspends all new visas for Canadian citizens. Ministry of External Affairs spokesman, Arindam Bagchi, makes a strongly worded statement calling Canada “a safe haven for terrorists, for extremists, and for organized crime.”
  • September 22 – External Affairs Minister, S Jaishankar meets his counterparts Yoko Kamikawa of Japan (the chair of the G7), and Penny Wong of Australia. He explains India’s position to garner support. 
  • September 22 – Secretary of State Anthony Blinken makes a press statement, the highest US official to engage with the issue. 

The blame game ensues

Arindam Bagchi, India’s Ministry of External Affairs spokesperson, told the press on September 21 that India had asked for but “not received any specific information” about India’s involvement from the Canadian government. Canada’s allegations were based on human and signal intelligence, as well as those from the ‘Five Eyes’ alliance, as confirmed by David Cohen, U.S. Ambassador to Canada on September 22.

Despite relatively cordial diplomatic relations between the two countries, an underlying displeasure hinted at India’s concerns about Sikh extremism on Canadian soil. At the G20 summit, India expressed “strong concerns about continuing anti-India activities of extremist elements in Canada.” 

For many years India has asked Canada to curb Sikh militant extremism promoting the idea of a separatist Khalistan state. Extremist tensions erupted in 1985 when a pro-Khalistan group – the Babbar Khalsa – was held responsible for blowing up Air India Flight 182, just 45 minutes after take off from Toronto. The explosion killed all 329 passengers and crew. Kanishka was the worst air disaster and act of terrorism on Canadian soil.

Canada arrested a few terrorists and punished one after years. But for India, justice was too little, too late.

Khalistani separatism triggers rift

Trudeau and his coalition partner Jagmeet Singh of the New Democratic Party have drawn flak from India for making appearances at pro-Khalistan rallies glorifying Khalistani leader Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale. At the MEA briefing, India blamed Canada for allowing Sikh separatist groups to operate unfettered in the country despite evidence provided, and form the fountainhead of Sikh militant extremism in India.

In 2014, Interpol issued a Red Corner Notice (RCN) against Hardeep Singh Nijjar, originally from Jalandhar in Punjab. Canada responded by putting Nijjar on a no-fly list.

Nijjar, a leader of the Khalistan Tiger Force, was allegedly associated with the Khalistan Liberation Force. Both organizations were flagged as terrorist groups in India under the UAPA.

At this point Indo-Canadian relations have nowhere to go but south. 

A once cordial relationship goes south

Shekhar Gupta, editor of ThePrint, said that the language used by India about Canada signals that the relationship has plummeted. “It was a particularly harsh language used about any of the G7 countries and a NATO member when the MEA went on to say that the ‘country that needs to worry about its international reputation is Canada.’” 

This Sikh/Khalistan brouhaha has plunged once cordial allies into a downward diplomatic spiral. Things will get “much worse before they get better,” says Gupta.

After tit-for-tat- diplomatic expulsions, the real concern is the threat against diplomats on both sides. Canada maintains that its diplomats are facing threats on social media in India, while earlier this year, Indian diplomats reported separatists in pro-Khalistan neighborhoods in Canada, allegedly brandished posters with the names and photos of Indian diplomats with a message to target them.  The protest in San Jose on September 24 displayed similar posters.

The ripple effect

In the U.S. pro-Khalistan forces broke into the Indian Consulate in San Francisco twice, once in March 2023, planted their flags, and tried to set fire to the premises, and again in July.

Canada has paused ongoing trade talks with  India regarding the  Free Trade Treaty negotiations, which were expected to boost trade to the tune of $6 billion, up from $17 billion.

The question is, what prompted Trudeau to make allegations against India in the Canadian Parliament instead of using diplomatic channels? Does the answer lie in the agreement (in March 2022), between the Trudeau-led minority coalition government and Jagmeet Singh’s New Democratic Party (NDP) which agreed to support the Trudeau coalition through 2025?

While there would be no power-sharing, it was agreed that the NDP would support Trudeau on crucial confidence votes and, in turn, Trudeau would give voice to the NDP’s concerns in Parliament. With Trudeau’s approval ratings currently at 30%, the Prime Minister possibly has his back to the wall in his home country.  

India is in no mood to compromise over issues of terrorism. With the U.S. adding its weight to demands for cooperation with the investigation, international eyeballs are focused on India’s next step.

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Nandita Chowdhury Bose is Contributing Editor at India Currents. In Mumbai, she worked at India Today and Society magazines, besides other digital publications. In the United States, she has been a communications...