The tendency of our current politics to view absolutely everything through the lens of partisanship has rarely been on better display than in the aftermath of the Prime Minister’s dramatic announcement in Parliament Monday: that Canadian intelligence officials were pursuing “credible allegations” of Indian involvement in the assassination of a Canadian Sikh leader, Hardeep Singh Nijjar.
Liberals who, like the Prime Minister, had spent much of the spring waving away multiple intelligence reports of the government of China’s interference in Canada’s electoral process, were entirely willing to believe less specific intelligence suggesting much worse interference by the government of India.
Conservatives, on the other hand, who had stoutly defended the professionalism of the Canadian intelligence services when the subject was China, suddenly grew very skeptical of intelligence that cast the government of Narendra Modi, a favourite of conservatives internationally, in a bad light.
Or was there even such intelligence, some asked? If the Prime Minister had evidence that India was behind the killing, why didn’t he produce it? And wasn’t the timing just a wee bit suspicious, just as Parliament was resuming and with his government under fire over the price of housing and a hundred other matters?
As always in such cases, it is best to suspend judgment, until all the facts are in – or so far as one is obliged to form a hypothesis, to do some elementary weighing of likelihoods. One intelligence report suggesting China was interfering in our politics might indeed be mistaken: overhyped, out of context and so on. But dozens? You wouldn’t necessarily convict anyone in a court of law on that basis, but to pretend that there is no story here? Put it this way: would it be more surprising, after all that has been reported, to find that China was interfering, or that it was not?
And so to India, and the Prime Minister’s statement. It’s possible, I suppose, that the Prime Minister just made it up: that he would have publicly accused the government of a major world power of complicity in the murder of a Canadian citizen, with all of the implications for Canadian foreign policy, for domestic security, and not least, for his own electoral fortunes, based on nothing more than hearsay; that after eight years as Prime Minister he did not think ahead to what the reaction would be in New Delhi and other world capitals, or what consequences he would face if he could not back up his accusations, but just sort of blurted it out, based on the crudest of political calculations.
I say, it’s always possible. But is it likely? It’s not exactly a stretch to imagine a government led by Mr. Modi shedding blood, or acting outside the bounds of law and convention. It’s been doing that for years at home, not only against Sikh separatists but Muslims, Christians and anyone else that stands in the way of its Hindu nationalist agenda. Why should it hesitate to do so abroad? Certainly his supporters in India have had no trouble believing it: Their reaction to the suggestion that the Modi government might have offed a prominent Sikh separatist and alleged terrorist has not been indignation but jubilation.
Moreover, the conspiracy theorists have to reckon with some inconvenient facts. It was not, first, Justin Trudeau who broke the news that Canadian intelligence believed India was involved in the killing. It was The Globe and Mail’s Robert Fife and Steven Chase. “Canadian national security authorities have what they consider credible intelligence that India was behind the mid-June fatal shooting of Hardeep Singh Nijjar,” was the original lede on The Globe story Monday morning. That’s far more definitive than the Prime Minister’s careful statement, delivered hours later (which caused The Globe story to be rewritten). And it is drawn from intelligence sources, not the Prime Minister’s head.
The Globe story may also have dictated the timing of the announcement. Prime Ministers don’t always have to respond to intelligence leaks, but on something as hot as this it’s hard to imagine him just keeping mum. And yet the tenor of much of the criticism has been less to find fault with India, for allegedly sending hitmen to murder a Canadian citizen on Canadian soil, than the Prime Minister of Canada, for pointing it out.
Couldn’t he have just dealt with the Indian government privately, some ask? But he did. The Prime Minister’s national security adviser, Jody Thomas, and the director of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, David Vigneault, were both dispatched to India over the summer to seek answers from Indian intelligence. The Prime Minister himself raised the matter with Mr. Modi at the Group of 20 summit in New Delhi earlier this month.
The statement itself did not directly accuse the government of India of involvement in the killing, but merely invited India to join in investigating it. It seemed designed to leave the Modi government room for plausible deniability – to discover to its horror that certain rogue intelligence operatives had taken matters into their own hands. Or at any rate, to do the Indian government the courtesy of publicly pretending it might.
Yes, but shouldn’t he have consulted with our allies, first, before going public? Again, he did. The intelligence was shared with our closest allies. If it was thin, or defective, presumably they would have pushed back, then or now, on the record or off. Nobody has.
Certainly the public statements from other countries have been muted, but that seems more to do with calculations of geopolitical strategy – India is being aggressively wooed as a counterweight to China – than any doubts about the intelligence. In any case, why stick your neck out before you have to? If the Prime Minister of Canada is not yet ready to explicitly accuse the Indian government of involvement, why should they?
As for the Modi government, its response has not been exactly such as to allay all suspicion. An invitation to collaborate in an investigation is no threat to a government that is innocent of all involvement. All it had to do was to say, “we join the Canadian government in denouncing this killing, and pledge our full co-operation in bringing those responsible to justice.”
Instead, it responded with a flurry of angry denials and deflections, including the accusation that Canada was “sheltering” or offering “safe haven” to terrorists. The evidence for this charge was notably lacking. To be sure, Canadian politicians of all parties, but especially the Liberals, have much to answer for in their willingness to court the Sikh separatist vote, including attending rallies where terrorists were glorified and terrorist attacks praised. Political leaders in this country, of all countries, should not be encouraging separatist movements in others, especially those that advocate or engage in violence.
But that’s a long way from “sheltering” terrorists. Much of the Indian government’s complaint seems to be, not just that politicians were present at these rallies, but that they were allowed to take place at all. But this is to elide another important distinction. Just as there is a difference between merely advocating separatism and promoting it by means of terrorism, so there is a difference between permitting a rally and condoning it, or between disapproving of it and banning it.
Likewise, there is a difference between suspecting an individual of terrorism, and having sufficient evidence to arrest, try and convict him. These distinctions may not matter so much in Mr. Modi’s India, but they do, and should, in Canada.
All of which may sound like a defence of the Prime Minister on this file. Quite the contrary. He is merely being accused of the wrong thing. Far from picking needless fights with a much more powerful adversary, as his critics contend, there is evidence to suggest that his government has been too unwilling to confront the government of India over its activities on Canadian territory.
According to independent national security reporter Sam Cooper, based on a top secret document prepared for the Prime Minister in 2019 by the National Security and Intelligence Commitee of Parliamentarians (NSICOP), “CSIS planned a major intervention in 2017 to shut down rapidly growing Indian intelligence networks in Vancouver that were monitoring and targeting the Sikh community.”
But the government blocked the operation, the NSICOP document states, due to “political sensitivity” and (as paraphrased by Mr. Cooper) “fears it would impact Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s upcoming trip to India.” This is an extraordinary statement. It suggests the security of the country took a backseat to, at best, improving relations with India, and at worst, politics.
Moreover, this is precisely the same charge the Trudeau government has faced in its dealings with China. It isn’t that it has been pusillanimous with the one, but overly confrontational with the other. It has been far too indulgent of both. All that is different is the attitude of the conservative opposition: hostile to China, keen on India.
Had those Indian intelligence networks been shut down back in 2017, we would likely have heard the same complaints we are now: that the government was acting in haste, that it was jeopardizing the “relationship,” and so on – the same complaints, oddly, that certain Liberal grandees made about its handling of the two Michaels affair.
But there is no “relationship” to be preserved with a government that kidnaps our citizens, as there cannot be with one that assassinates them, on or off Canadian soil. It doesn’t matter, in this respect, what crimes that individual might or might not have committed. And it doesn’t matter what the government of Canada might or might not have done about these. Extrajudicial killings are not how law-abiding governments deal with their own citizens, still less with other countries’.
As for the Trudeau government, the issue is not whether it has been too rude to India in raising questions about Mr. Nijjar’s killing after the fact, but whether it was too solicitous of India’s feelings in the years prior. Had it not been, had it drawn clearer boundaries around what sort of activities were permissible, we might not be in this mess. Back up the allegations against India he should, but also answer the questions raised by that damning NSICOP document.
This has changed my thinking on one point. Until now I would have preferred the public inquiry into foreign interference should be limited to China. The issue that warrants the inquiry, I’ve argued, is not whether or how China has interfered in Canada – that’s what the intelligence services are for – but what action or inaction of the Trudeau government might have enabled it.
I think the same questions need now to be asked of its handling of India.