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The World Sikh Organization, an Ottawa-based advocacy group, says India is spreading falsehoods about the demonstration, which it says was to protest an Indian government crackdown in the state of Punjab as they searched for Sikh separatist leader Amritpal Singh, pictured centre.Reuters

India’s high commissioner said his country has made a formal complaint to the Department of Global Affairs about “the safety and security” of its diplomatic premises in Canada, citing in particular a protest by Sikhs in March outside its high commission in Ottawa.

The World Sikh Organization, an Ottawa-based advocacy group for Sikhs, in turn, is accusing India of spreading falsehoods about the demonstration, which it says was to protest an Indian government crackdown in the state of Punjab. Indian authorities there had restricted communications and gatherings as they searched for Sikh separatist leader Amritpal Singh.

Sanjay Kumar Verma, India’s envoy to Canada, told The Globe and Mail that staff at the high commission felt threatened by the March 23 demonstration at their diplomatic mission in Ottawa’s New Edinburgh neighbourhood. He said protesters adopted a “quite frightening” posture during their demonstration. “They came just next to our fence and they put their posters on it and then they tried to shake the fence, et cetera. So it was very threatening.”

Indian newspapers including the Hindustan Times this week described the incident in Ottawa as an attack, citing unnamed sources with the country’s counterterrorism National Investigation Agency. A “mob of Khalistan supporters had attacked the Indian High Commission in Ottawa during which two grenades were hurled at the building,” the Times wrote in a June 24 story.

Mr. Verma declined to discuss whether grenades were thrown, saying he could not comment because of continuing investigations. He said the RCMP and Ottawa police were probing the incident. The RCMP referred questions to the Ottawa police.

The Globe asked the Ottawa Police Service whether it was investigating and whether the probe included the use of grenades at the protest. It offered few details but said items under investigation were devices used to emit smoke.

“This is an ongoing police investigation and no details will be released at this time so as to protect the integrity of the investigation,” the Ottawa Police Service said in a statement.

“We can advise that we are investigating the possible use of smoke canisters during the protest.”

The Department of Global Affairs said it “does not comment on diplomatic security matters involving specific missions,” but added that Canada is ”committed to the safety and security of all foreign missions” in the country.

Canada is home to about 770,000 people who reported Sikhism as their religion in the last census, comprising 2.1 per cent of the population.

Some of these Sikhs support the Sikh independence movement that is seeking to create a sovereign homeland known as Khalistan – a proposal strongly opposed by the Indian government.

Balpreet Singh, legal counsel and spokesperson for the World Sikh Organization, accused the Indian government of trying to malign Sikhs by supplying fictitious information to media outlets in India.

“Smoke canisters are a far cry from grenades,” he said. “We are talking two very different things and threats of two different magnitudes.”

He said that if there really had been a grenade attack on an embassy in Ottawa it would have been widely covered in Canadian news.

“India is very petty. They are making a big fuss about Sikh activism here in Canada,” he said. “Demonstrations and activism are part of our democratic rights here in Canada.”

Mr. Verma, the high commissioner, said nobody is allowed to come close to diplomatic missions in India.

“I frankly don’t call them protesters. I call them hooligans,” he said of the March 23 demonstrators.

He said India has requested that Canada take steps to ensure that India’s diplomatic mission and its consulates in Toronto are sufficiently protected “so that we don’t feel threatened.”

Dan Stanton, a former executive manager of operations at Canadian Security Intelligence Service who is now the director of the national-security program at the University of Ottawa’s Professional Development Institute, said it appears media outlets in India are being supplied with disinformation about Sikh activities in Canada.

The Indian government “views separatist and secessionist movements as national-security threats,” Mr. Stanton said. He said India considers the Khalistan movement to be equivalent to sedition and terrorism and this makes it challenging for the Canadian government when talking to Delhi to sort out “what’s reliable intelligence on terrorism, and then what’s just the Indian government being the Indian government.”

Mr. Verma accused the Sikh protesters of trying to disrupt and create confusion in bilateral relations between India and Canada, and said the World Sikh Organization is responsible for a “bunch of lies.”

Mr. Singh with the World Sikh Organization said they stand by their statements and said it’s New Delhi that needs to be held responsible for its actions.

“India’s claim that its high commission in Ottawa was targeted with grenades is patently false. That’s a lie that belongs solely to the government of India and needs to be publicly challenged and exposed.”

Mr. Singh expressed hope that an expected public inquiry into foreign interference might also cover India. He noted that India is a key focus of Canada’s new Indo-Pacific Strategy that seeks to build ties across the region. “But that is not, you know, a free ticket for India to engage in interference here,” Mr. Singh said.

With a report from The Canadian Press

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