The Biden administration has thrown a political lifeline to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau as the rift in Indo-Canadian relations widened Thursday, pressing India to co-operate with the Canadian investigation into the mid-June killing of a British Columbia Sikh leader.
At a White House briefing, national security adviser Jake Sullivan said the United States has not abandoned Canada even though none of Ottawa’s allies has joined Mr. Trudeau’s public condemnation of India.
Mr. Sullivan said the U.S. has urged the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to work with Canada to arrest the people responsible for the gangland-style killing of Hardeep Singh Nijjar, a prominent advocate of a separate state for Sikhs in the Indian state of Punjab.
“We are in constant contact with our Canadian counterparts. We are consulting with them. We support the efforts that they are undertaking in this investigation and we have also been in contact with the Indian government,” Mr. Sullivan told reporters. “I firmly reject the idea there is a wedge between the U.S. and Canada. We have deep concerns about the allegations and we would like to see this investigation move forward and the perpetrators held to account.”
Evidence gathered in the investigation of the Nijjar slaying included intelligence from a Five Eyes ally as well as communications involving Indian diplomats in Canada, CBC reported Thursday.
Tensions mounted further on Thursday as New Delhi suspended the acceptance and processing of visa applications for Canadians and Canada downsized its diplomatic missions in the South Asian country over fears about the safety of staff.
At the United Nations in New York, Mr. Trudeau called for calm, saying he was not trying to provoke India, and urged Mr. Modi to help Canadian law enforcement authorities “uncover the truth” about the killing of Mr. Nijjar.
“We are not looking to provoke or cause problems, but we are unequivocal about the rule of law and unequivocal about protecting Canadians and standing up for our values. That is why we call upon the government of India to work with us to establish processes, to uncover the truth of the matter and allow justice and accountability to be served,” he told reporters.
But Mr. Trudeau said he stands by what he told the House of Commons on Monday that “there are credible reasons to believe that agents of the government of India were involved in the killing of a Canadian on Canadian soil.”
The Prime Minister did not answer reporters’ questions on whether he would release classified intelligence to buttress his allegations that agents of India killed Mr. Nijjar. Britain, Turkey and United Arab Emirates publicly released intelligence, including video evidence, when they alleged agents of Russia, Saudi Arabia and Israel carried out state-sanctioned killings in those countries.
India had strongly denied the allegations of involvement in the killing. External Affairs Ministry spokesperson Arindam Bagchi said Thursday that India is ready to examine the Canadian intelligence but specific evidence had not yet been shared.
“We’ve conveyed this to the Canadian side, made it clear to them that we are willing to look at any specific information provided to us,” he said. “But so far we have not received any such specific information.”
Mr. Trudeau’s former national security adviser Vincent Rigby said the government now has a dilemma of deciding how much intelligence it can reveal publicly.
“By saying they have this intelligence and the Indian government is demanding to know publicly what it is out there, and Canadians want to know, so they are in a very difficult situation now,” he said. “It is going to be difficult to put out intelligence that would potentially expose tradecraft.”
Mr. Rigby said it won’t be easy to calm the waters after the Prime Minister publicly called out the Indians for violating Canadian sovereignty but “at the same time I don’t think the government or Canadians want to see this escalate out of control. This is an important relationship for us and for the West.”
There are few signs that Ottawa will be able to stabilize Indo-Canadian relations any time soon.
Global Affairs Canada announced Thursday it is reducing staff levels at its diplomatic missions in India, citing a fear for the safety of its employees.
“In light of the current environment where tensions have heightened, we are taking action to ensure the safety of our diplomats,” Global Affairs spokesman Jean-Pierre Godbout said in a statement. “As a result, and out of an abundance of caution, we have decided to temporarily adjust staff presence in India.”
Mr. Godbout said Canada’s high commission in New Delhi remains open, as do Canadian consulates across the South Asian country.
He reminded the Indian government of its treaty obligations to keep Canadian diplomats safe.
India said, however, that it has asked Canada to draw down its diplomatic footprint on the subcontinent.
India’s Mr. Bagchi also confirmed there is temporary suspension of all visa services for Canadians, including e-visas and visas issued in third countries.
“Security threats being faced by our high commission and consulates in Canada have disrupted their normal functioning. Accordingly, they are temporarily unable to process visa applications. We will be reviewing the situation on a regular basis,” Mr. Bagchi told reporters.
He called for a reduction in Canadian diplomats in India, saying they outnumbered India’s staffing in Canada.
“We have informed the Canadian government that there should be parity in strength and rank equivalence in our mutual diplomatic presence,” Mr. Bagchi said.
India has more than 60 accredited diplomats in Canada, including three who are designated as non-resident, according to a list maintained by Ottawa’s Department of Global Affairs.
Canada and India have each expelled a senior diplomat from the other country over Mr. Nijjar’s killing while Ottawa halted talks on a trade agreement and cancelled a Canadian trade mission to India.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Sept. 19 called on India to take seriously allegations that the country had a role in the death of a Canadian citizen, after New Delhi described those claims as 'absurd and motivated.' Trudeau revealed Sept. 18 that Canadian intelligence services are investigating 'credible' information about 'a potential link' between the government of India and the murder of British Columbia Sikh leader Hardeep Singh Nijjar.
The Canadian Press